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Marked for murder

  • The vigilante killings of alleged rape perpetrators in Manipur raise questions of law and justice
  • Many in the state believe that such killings will only stop when the justice system proves to be more effective

The ‘underground’ (UGs, as they are called locally) proudly owns up to every incident it’s responsible for as an act of ‘justice’, and a warning to others
The ‘underground’ (UGs, as they are called locally) proudly owns up to every incident it’s responsible for as an act of ‘justice’, and a warning to others (Photo: Jayachandran/Mint)

On a midsummer night in 2017, as Imphal was winding down, the stillness was shattered by a round of gunshots in the Sagolband Tera neighbourhood, in the heart of the city. It was the first time in nearly a decade that cadres of the outlawed United National Liberation Front (UNLF) had killed a Manipuri civilian. The victim was a 43-year-old goldsmith, Irom Bobo.

29 July had started out jubilantly for the Irom family, with news that their eldest daughter had given birth to a son. Irom’s wife Subadhini was away from home, tending to her daughter. It was in the evening that she learnt her husband had been killed the previous night. “He was making a pair of earrings for his newborn grandson," she recalls, breaking into tears.

I met her a year ago. At her home in Tharoijam, on the outskirts of the city, Subadhini, holding a portrait of her husband tightly to her chest, said no reporter had come enquiring about her husband’s death. A statement released by the UNLF a day after Irom’s death said he had been executed for raping his then 12-year-old relative four years ago.

Public outrage and reprisal against sexual violence has been finding an outlet every now and then in Manipur. Being accused of molestation or sexual assault can mean there’s a bullet somewhere with your name on it. In the latest incident, 23-year-old Dhanashyam Heisnam was shot dead near his residence at Thanga Leisnam Leikai in Bishnupur district on 9 September. The killing was claimed by the UNLF as punishment for his alleged involvement in the gang rape of a 14-year-old girl last year. According to media reports, he was out on bail for about a month after spending six months in Imphal’s Sajiwa jail. A district police official said a case had been registered against unknown members of the UNLF under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

The frustration of seeing one too many cases of sexual violence go unpunished reached breaking point in 2004, when 24-year-old Thangjam Manorama Devi was raped and killed, allegedly by paramilitary forces personnel, in an extra-judicial encounter. Not a single accused has been brought to justice so far, nor have their names ever been disclosed.

Manorama’s story is the oft-cited in Manipur’s history and serves well as a primer to understand the absence of law and order in the state. For the rest of the country, the December 2012 rape and death of Nirbhaya was a turning point, at least as far as strengthening rape laws and criminal procedure goes. In its aftermath, the Justice J.S. Verma committee made a slew of recommendations that led to amendments in the sections dealing with sexual violence in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Code of Criminal Procedure.

One of the recommendations was that sexual violence against women by members of the security forces be brought under the purview of ordinary criminal law. “Impunity for systematic or isolated sexual violence, in the process of Internal Security duties, is being legitimized by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which is in force in large parts of our country," the committee said. This recommendation, however, did not make it to the final amendments.

Given the broken state apparatus, underground groups have been taking matters into their own hands over the years, ostensibly to protect the honour and dignity of women and children, particularly minor girls. Valley-based groups, like the UNLF, People’s Liberation Army (PLA), PLA’s political wing Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF), Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) and People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (Prepak), have taken to gunning down rape accused, including their own cadres, as punishment. In October 2005, Prepak executed Khwairakpam Henry, a 25-year-old “volunteer" with their outfit. Pressured by women’s groups demanding action, the group held a “vigilante trial" that found him guilty of raping and murdering a girl in Imphal West.

The “underground" (UGs, as they are called locally) proudly owns up to every incident it’s responsible for as an act of “justice", and a warning to others. There are no definitive figures on the number of such killings or attempted killings. From the media reports available online and the incidents recorded by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, I came across at least 12 instances between 2005-17 of UGs going after rape accused either in the form of threats and attempted or successful encounters.

In the statement released after Irom’s killing, the UNLF said it had been tracking him since his release from Sajiwa jail. Cognizant of the time that had lapsed since the alleged offence, the group offered an explanation for the delay in meting out “timely punishments". “Some of the criminals who had committed similar crimes have run away to other states outside Manipur after being released from jail and a few are hiding in rented houses by changing their identities," it said.

Irom’s mother told Nupigi Punshi that her son had moved to Imphal city along with his family to be closer to his workplace. A popular women’s journal in Meiteilon, Nupigi Punshi has been in circulation since 2011, when it was first published by Robita Devi, the founder and president of a non-profit called Women Against Crime in Imphal.

Once her husband got out of jail, Subadhini said he returned to a normal life. “My husband was an affectionate, simple and innocent man. You can ask any of our neighbours. I never trusted that girl. Even the medical check-up never confirmed she was raped," she said. A copy of the medical examination report I accessed confirmed that there were “signs of recent attempted sexual assault present".

Meanwhile, the victim’s family struggled for justice and rehabilitation. Based on a police complaint filed by her father on 2 July 2013, a case of rape was registered under section 376 of the IPC. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (Pocso) was not applied. The Manipur State Commission for Women that took up the case did not mention Pocso or even the fact that the victim was a minor in its formal applications or case documents.

The family told me the women’s commission and a non-profit worker had provided counselling to the victim and helped the family with legal proceedings as well as obtaining compensation. Under the Scheme for Relief and Rehabilitation for Victims of Rape, 2005, the victim is entitled to an interim relief amount of 20,000. Although they were promised 25,000 by the NGO worker, the family said they only received 17,000.

The commission set up an inquiry committee to examine witnesses and collect evidence in order to submit the report to the police with recommendations. However, nothing seems to have materialized—many of the hearings had either the complainant or the accused missing, and, sometimes, both parties. Her family recalls two hearings during which their testimonies were recorded. After Irom’s release, the family didn’t have any resources to follow up the case or make any formal complaints to court. “For about a year after the incident, Meira Paibis (women torchbearers) of our locality staged several protests, demanding swift justice. After that, it all died down," said the girl’s grandfather. He had even forgotten the name of their counsel. Whenever I visited, her parents, who are separated, were not at home.

Years before, Thangjam Manorama Devi, Neelam Panchbhaiya and Tamphasana had already become household names in Manipur.

Fourteen-year-old Panchbhaiya, a Garhwali girl who grew up in Imphal, was abducted and killed on her way home from school in 1986. The case rocked the state since the son of the then chief minister, Rishang Keishing, was reported to have been involved. But media reports say no police investigation was launched due to lack of evidence. The post-mortem, which declared she died of drowning, was suspected to have been botched. Tamphasana was gang raped and killed, allegedly by politically influential perpetrators, in 1990. Although no reports were available on this case, activists and lawyers told me underground cadres killed one of her alleged rapists as punishment.

Chaoba Paojel, a senior journalist with the daily Imphal Free Press, said the killings did help bring down the number of rape cases. He recalls that in the cases of Neelam and Tamphasana, the police could not frame charges against the rape accused reportedly because of the connection to ministers. “The public was outraged and demanded justice. The UGs delivered their own version of justice," he said.

In an article published in the January 2000 issue of a now defunct journal called Manipur Update, Irengbam Arun wrote that rape victims started appealing to the underground organizations for justice after instances of “vigilante justice" started showing results. “These acts of vigilante justice not only helped in bringing down the rape incidence in the state, but also helped the victims in fighting their own fears," she wrote.

Human Rights Alert (HRA), a non-profit in Imphal, has documented over a thousand cases of extra-judicial encounters, torture and sexual offences allegedly committed by the state police and security forces. But unlike “fake" encounter cases where state and armed forces personnel were the accused, activists, lawyers, journalists and police officials maintain a studied silence on these unlawful killings.

Babloo Loitongbam, a lawyer who founded the HRA, said he categorically condemns the “capital punishment" carried out by the state as well as non-state groups. But he asserted that when rule of law fails to protect human rights, vigilante justice takes over. “Back then, the law and order situation was in such shambles that the UG groups became the Robin Hood of Manipuri society." Though not everyone agrees, he believes the “shining saviour" image of the UGs has faded to some extent, with policing and judicial response improving over the last five years. “UGs are a part of our reality here and they will try to assert their authority and influence. Until insurgency is politically resolved in the state, we will continue to see this contestation of space between a constitutionally recognized government and self-determined groups."

Indian and international human rights laws, however, would term such vigilante killings as undemocratic and unconstitutional, violating the basic right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven. In August 2017, the India office of the human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, criticized armed groups for attacking people in the name of women’s rights. “Vigilante justice undermines the rule of law and does little to improve women’s safety," Amnesty India said in a statement.

The year 2018 proved to be a landmark of sorts for Manipur—there were four convictions under Pocso. Of the four, the very first death sentence in a rape case was pronounced in July. Earlier in the year, two convictions led to life sentences by a special trial court for Pocso cases on 25 April and 5 May, respectively.

A glance at the 2016 National Crime Records Bureau statistics from Manipur shows that the rate of reporting rape (4.3%) and other sexual offences has always been much lower than the national average. The reporting figure on cases registered under Pocso is more or less the same.

R.K. Milan, a private counsel who has assisted the public prosecutor in rape cases, attributes the poor reporting of sexual violence to lack of legal awareness and formal education in Manipur. He does not believe unlawful killings are reflective of the public faith (or lack thereof) in the formal justice system.

Overall, the state of affairs, says Paojel, hasn’t changed much. “Here, we have an overt ‘state’ and covert ‘non-state’ form of governance. The masses place their trust in the non-state actors in certain cases, where they are effectively the judge, jury and executioner."

He believes such killings will only stop when the judiciary proves to be more effective. “Because even after fast-track courts were set up, the cases are not being expedited," Paojel says.

Meihoubam Rakesh, a senior lawyer with the Human Rights Law Network in Imphal, agrees that vigilante methods have resonated with the public. “Their actions and statements are so effective that I have known rape accused to plea for a cancellation on their own bail petitions after a killing," he says. Five years after the incident and a year since her alleged perpetrator was killed by UGs, the 12-year-old girl, who is now 18, lives a fairly normal life. Her family was elated to hear the news of Irom’s execution and felt justice had finally been served. “There’s no place for bad people in our society. It’s better if they are no longer alive," her stepmother said. They knew little about the case and had entirely given up on the courts.

Subadhini, on the other hand, was seething with anger. “They should have thought about the family of the rape accused, that he has children to support," she said. “He was innocent."

The author is a journalist based in Guwahati. This story was written with support from the Zubaan Sasakawa Grant for Young Researchers. A longer version of this story was first published by Zubaan Publishers on their website.

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