Correction: 16/11/2017: A previous version of this story identified one of the widows as Nongmaithem Neena. However, she goes by her maiden name Neena Ningombam.
Imphal, India – Just a few kilometres away from a bus stop in Malom, the infamous site where Indian paramilitary forces allegedly shot dead 10 civilians in 2000, about 100 women gather in a hall.
It’s a wet monsoon morning in Manipur, a picturesque northeastern Indian state that shares a long, forested border with Myanmar and has been battling armed insurgencies for decades.
Opposite the hall where the women congregate, a temple for the followers of Sanamahism, an ancient indigenous religion, emerges like an island amid puddles of stagnant water.
Many women have come dressed in orange and white, traditional colours of mourning. Some clutch large portraits of their sons, fathers and brothers – men they claim were killed in cold blood in fake “encounters” by the Manipur police and security forces.
The women are observing the seventh anniversary of coming together. They call themselves the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM).
They petitioned the Supreme Court in 2012 to set up a special investigation team to examine what they claim were extrajudicial killings of their loved ones. They say the police refused to lodge complaints of their deaths and, as a result, no investigation or prosecution has ever taken place.
A generous basket of flowers awaits the women. Lilly, lotus, marigold flowers for the men in the framed photos. The women line up, one by one, clenching their fists, holding back tears as they await their turn to make their offerings.
One woman breaks down in loud, inconsolable sobs. She’s whisked away and comforted by another, Neena Ningombam, a young widow whose husband disappeared after lunch in 2008. He appeared on the 9pm news bulletin as a corpse.
|Neena Ningombam is raising two children on her own after her husband was killed [Neha Tara Mehta/Al Jazeera]|
On July 8, the women won a quiet victory when the court issued a stern interim ruling in the case, asking for details of 1,528 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings between May 1979 and May 2012 by the Manipur police and armed forces.
The court also said “the use of excessive force or retaliatory force” by the police or armed forces is not permissible, and that allegations of excessive force resulting in casualties must be thoroughly looked into.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” says Yaikhom Edina, whose taxi-driver husband was allegedly killed in a fake encounter in January 2009.
“We are hopeful that we’ll succeed in bringing to an end the special powers enjoyed by armed forces in our state.”
Sense of vindication
The Manipur government estimates that nearly 30 groups that aim to secede the state from India are currently active.
Parts of the state have been declared “disturbed” under the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in 1958. It grants sweeping powers to armed forces to make arrests without warrants on “reasonable suspicion”. They are authorised to shoot or use force against civilians – even if it results in deaths – for “the maintenance of public order”.
Human rights activists have linked the act to extrajudicial killings, torture, and even rape of rebels and civilians.
In its 85-page ruling on July 8, the Supreme Court referred to a 2013 commission it had appointed to investigate six cases of the 1,528 alleged extrajudicial killings in Manipur.
In all cases, the commission found that either the encounter was not genuine or that there had been an excessive use of force. The police and armed forces maintain the encounters were genuine.
This, observed the court, “put us on the right track and has convinced us that the allegations made by the petitioners cannot be summarily rubbished”.
For Babloo Loitongbam of Human Rights Alert, which was the co-petitioner in the case, this is a significant moment. “The Supreme Court has acknowledged that it is wrong to kill innocent people, even in the name of counter-insurgency.”
Kongkham Gangarani, a visually impaired widow, heard the news of the court ruling on the radio. Her husband, a taxi driver, was allegedly killed by a police commando in 2008 on suspicion of being an insurgent.
“I am very happy with this. We think we will get justice now and be able to prove that my husband was not an underground man,” Gangarani told Al Jazeera.
|Kongkham Gangarani, who is blind, does all the housework after she lost her husband in 2008 [Neha Tara Mehta/Al Jazeera]|
Her elder son Lamjingkhomba, a lanky, bashful teenager, is happy, too. Last year he took part in a child rights campaign at the United Nations in New York, and spoke about the need to repeal the act.
“AFSPA has given suffering to some, and also lots of opportunities to some in the form of gallantry awards and promotions for fake encounters,” he says.
His mother completes his thoughts on how this might change. “As long as there is solidarity in civil society groups and victims’ families, we can create greater pressure to bring justice. This is a stepping stone. We are hopeful for a stronger final verdict.”
Rajat Mitra, a psychologist, has been working with the families on their healing process for three years. “This is a major development socially and psychologically for people in Manipur, besides being a significant legal development. It validates what they’ve been fighting for,” he says.
At the anniversary meet of EEVFAM, there are some fathers and brothers present as well, and they’re cheering the ruling.
Singhajit Irom’s sister Sharmilahas been protesting against the security act by fasting for more than 15 years. He is hopeful the Supreme Court ruling will kick-start the process of justice in Manipur.
“India is the biggest democracy in the world. If it doesn’t take steps to repeal AFSPA, it will look very bad in front of other countries. Curbing the army in doing excesses is a step in ensuring our right to life,” Sharmila says.
Then there is Dee Abonmai, a filmmaker. He is here as a father. He took a bone-rattling journey from Tamenglong district, about 150km away, to bring his son’s framed photo to the meeting. His son was allegedly killed in a fake encounter in 2008.
“He was innocent. Because of the Supreme Court ruling, the truth will now come out.”
End of impunity?
Over the years, there have been several calls for the repeal of the act across India. It has been scrutinised internationally too, with the UN calling for it to be scrapped, and Human Rights Watch arguing the law violates India’s obligations under international human rights law.
The act was removed from the northeastern state of Tripura in 2015. But it remains in place in Manipur and other northeastern states. A version of the law is also in place in Indian-administered Kashmir.
In its recent ruling, the court observed that the rule of law and democracy in India would be “in grave danger” if armed forces kill citizens on mere allegation or suspicion that they are enemies.
But some analysts point out that the act doesn’t legitimise indiscriminate killings or human rights violations.
“Objections to AFSPA are completely misconceived and misguided, and not based on a reading of the act, but on rhetoric,” says Ajai Sahni of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.
“No one discusses the actual clauses of the AFSPA, none of which confer any right to commit any human rights violations.”
The Indian government “categorically denied” that the armed forces could kill a person without any reason under AFSPA, stating “several safeguards and pre-requisite conditions” need to be met before any person is killed.
A Bimol Akoijam, an academic from Manipur who teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says while the recent ruling is a victory in the “sense that troops must be made accountable”, the court is asking the army to operate like the police under a civilian dispensation.
“The irony is that the army is not trained to operate in that fashion to deal with a ‘law-and-order’ situation in what is considered to be a domestic space. Its ethos and training are very different.”
Army for internal matters
In a strongly worded observation, the court also noted that Manipur had been a “disturbed area” for about 60 years. “A generation or two has gone by and issues have festered for decades.”
A “prolonged, permanent or indefinite deployment” of the armed forces would “mock” India’s democratic process, said the court.
With its observations, the court has revived debate on how long armed forces should be deployed in insurgency-affected areas – and whether they should be deployed at all.
The army, says defence analyst Dipankar Banerjee, a retired major-general, should not be used for internal matters.
“The army of a nation is the ultimate force behind a state and should be employed for ensuring fundamental security against external aggression,” says Banerjee.
The decision to use the army and other central forces for internal matters, points out Sahni, is a political one based on a security assessment.
“But as long as the army is deployed, AFSPA or an act like AFSPA has to be there, as the army cannot engage in counter-insurgency operations under its original jurisdiction under the Army Act.”
The army’s presence in Indian-administered Kashmir has been especially controversial. In the past two weeks, at least 40 protesters have been killed and hundreds wounded in clashes with security forces.
The court’s recent observations in Manipur have implications on the question of the act’s continuity in the disputed territory, says Happymon Jacob, an academic at Jawaharlal Nehru University who works on the Kashmir conflict.
“With a lot of international attention being focused on the situation in Kashmir right now, the central government will be under a lot of political and moral pressure.” Technically, though, the government can choose to ignore the court’s observations, he says.
But the act, Banerjee argues, might still be required selectively in Kashmir, as armed forces operate there in a different environment from the one in Manipur.
“The army may have a role when external forces nurture a proxy war in a border state as in Jammu and Kashmir, which cannot be countered by the police, who are neither equipped nor trained to take on an external armed force or a specially trained terrorist organisation.”
Long path to justice
Amid the steady pitter patter and roar of auto rickshaws on the road, strains of 1980s Bollywood music drift into a grocery store in Khurai market in east Imphal. Bollywood has been banned in Manipur since 2000, but somebody outside is flouting it.
Behind the counter is Edina, who divides her time at the shop and her work as the general secretary of EEVFAM. Across from her, on a shelf crammed with bottles of mustard oil, is a white-and-pink portrait of her husband.
“My husband’s death left me in deep trauma. The trauma later led to an attack of paralysis,” Edina says. “I couldn’t cook, couldn’t wash more than three pieces of cloth at a time.”
It’s taken her years to put her life back together and open this shop. She spent $300 – a small fortune – as a security deposit for the shop, which she rents for $15 a month.
|Yaikhom Edina was paralysed on her left side after her husband died in 2009. She’s recovered and opened a small store [Neha Tara Mehta/Al Jazeera]|
Customers barely trickle in – but the shop offers her hope for a better future. “I can’t save anything but this helps me meet my son and daughter’s family’s expenses,” she says. Edina has some reason to hope with the latest ruling. And she wants more from the final verdict.
“Now, the army cannot do whatever it wants with AFSPA.” But, she says, the ruling is “little good, not full good.
“We want a special investigation team to probe all the cases at the earliest,” Edina says.
For others at EEVFAM, the ruling is the start of many things they hope to achieve. Not all of it will be easy, they say.
Ningombam, a young widow with two boys, wants to believe the latest court pronouncement will curb the powers of the armed forces.
But she is sceptical.
“The armed forces in our country are very powerful … and they won’t want AFSPA to go. They get gallantry awards for killing people here … They have power, too much power.
“All I can say is – let’s hope for the best.”
|Inside Story – India: Too far, too fast?|