In 2004, Thangjam Manorama’s brutal rape and murder by the Assam Rifles personnel sparked off a historic movement demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Manipur’s women stripped off their clothes and protested in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters at Kangla Fort, shouting ‘Indian Army Rape Us!’
Ten years on, the Supreme Court ordered Rs 10 lakh compensation to be paid to Manorama’s mother. This is the only acknowledgement, as yet, by the institutions of justice, that Manorama was raped and murdered. At the same time, the Supreme Court also admitted a petition by the Army challenging the Gauhati HC’s order that had held as valid the enquiry commission appointed to probe Manorama’s death.
The Enquiry Commission, under the Chairmanship of C. Upendra Singh, retired District and Sessions Judge, Manipur, was set up in 2004 by the Manipur Government because of the explosive public pressure. But it was thwarted from the start by the Assam Rifles, that claimed it was protected by AFSPA from such enquiries.
In an August 28, 2004 interim order, the Gauhati High Court refused to stay the proceedings of the Upendra commission. However, the Court ruled that the final report required court sanction to be published.
Judge Upendra Singh submitted his final report to the Manipur government in November 22, 2004, but it was not made public because of the court order. On June 23, 2005, in its final verdict, the High Court ruled that the state government of Manipur did not have administrative control over the armed forces deployed in the state, which are controlled by the central government. The Court asked the central government “to deal with the report and take follow-up action as may be necessary in accordance with the provisions of the law,” adding, “Since the subject matter of dispute is a definite matter of public importance, the Union government is required to take appropriate action without least possible delay.”
The Centre failed to heed this order. Instead, it (through Assam Rifles) challenged the order, holding that the State Government had no right to set up such a Commission.
This Gauhati HC order was also challenged by the Manipur Government as well as by Manorama’s family. A division bench of the Gauhati high court, in August 2010, allowed the state government to open and act upon the Upendra Commission report.
Against the September 2010 order, the central government (Assam Rifles) had filed a Special Leave Petition (SLP) in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has admitted that appeal while clearing the ex gratia payment of Rs 10 lakh to Manorama’s family. But Manorama’s family has made it clear that while the payment has given them hope since it is an admission that a custodial killing took place, this cannot replace the quest for justice and repeal of AFSPA. Recently, the Delhi University called an RSS man to ‘train’ students who were headed to the North East on an official university trip. They did so claiming the RSS man – from Mathura – was an ‘expert on the North East.’ They also claimed that the North East was chosen as the destination for the trip because this was the wish of the Prime Minister, Modi. The RSS man told the students that the North East had a ‘Hindu past’. It is strange that the University did not find any of the many senior academics from the North East, suitable to prepare students for a trip to the region! Moreover, as Modi expresses ‘love’ for the North East and the RSS seeks to incorporate the region in their imagined ‘Hindu nation’, what happens to the aspirations of the Manoramas of the North East? The ones who are raped and killed at the altar of that sacred cow for the RSS, the BJP and most other parties in India – the Indian Army? Does Modi have any answer as to why Manorama’s rapists and killers are being shielded from a trial in a Court of law?
Below are key findings and excerpts from the Upendra Commission report, that piece together the last hours of Manorama. Every detail of the torture suffered by the gangrape victim of Delhi December 16th 2012 is etched in public memory. But Manorama’s last hours should trouble us even more. Because it was no random Ram Singh from a slum who tortured her, and whom we can brand as a ‘demon’. It was the personnel of the Indian Army, who continue to be shielded and defended by successive Central Governments.
Key Findings of the Upendra Commission
Torture in Presence of Her Family
On the night in question, the 17th Assam Rifles (henceforth AR) cordoned off Manorama’s house. Her mother Khumanleima Devi and two younger brothers Basu and Dolendro were the only others at home. At 12.30 at night, the family was sleeping except Basu watching a Hindi movie on TV.
The Assam Rifles broke open the door and entered, pointing a gun at Basu. Meanwhile Manorama came and embraced her mother tightly. A 6-ft tall Army man in civil dress caught hold of Manorama and tried to take her to the verandah, as she cried ‘Ima Ima Khamu’ (Mother mother please stop them). Her mother was pushed to the ground twice, injuring her, when she tried to go to Manorama’s rescue.
Then, on the orders of a man (identified as Maj Gen Rathore who later prepared the arrest memo), Manorama was brought to the verandah in front of her room. She was slapped and asked about whereabouts of some guns. The rest of the family was sent inside, but they periodically saw Army personnel come to the house to take various implements including a knife from the kitchen. AR personnel ordered lights in the verandah switched off. The brothers heard their sister say ‘I don’t know’ in a voice that was muffled by a gag. The Upendra Commission notes, “Basu slowly went to the room of his sister where a tube light was on and when he slightly opened the window of that room, he saw his sister Manorama lying with her back on the ground and her hands behind her back. And by that time, an un-uniformed personnel of the arresting party kneeling on the left side of his sister Manorama was inserting the kitchen knife with his right hand under her underwear. At that time, her Phanek (Manipuri skirt) was put down from her waist towards her knees and her thighs were exposed, the T shirt which she was wearing was pulled up and buttons of it were seen unfastened,” exposing her breast.
“This is corroborated by Khumanleima (who stated) that when the arresting party brought in Manorama by holding her hair, her daughter was clutching her Phanek with her left hand, her shirt was also unbuttoned and both the shirt and Phanek were soiled and wet.”
After some time, Manorama was brought inside the house. Her brothers said her clothes were so wet and soiled they seemed tied to her body. “Her face was swollen with the tell tale signs of being beaten.” Asked by the AR personnel to change her clothes, she did.
Manorama was then dragged by her hair to sit on a bench. One member of the arresting party left a kitchen knife stained with blood. Another prepared the arrest memo, on which signatures of Manorama and Dolendro, and the thumbprint of their mother was taken.
Two FIRs were filed after Manorama’s death – one by the AR, and the other by Dolendro.
The commission gives credence to the consistent statements of all the family members, and to the testimony of a neighbor who heard the sounds of doors and windows being broken, of Manorama crying out, and voices in Hindi shouting ‘Maji chup’.
Violations of Regulations
The report says, “Before launching the search and arrest, not only information about the activities of Manorama was not obtained from the local civil authority, no representative of local civil administration was co-opted during the raid, search and arrest as required by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in pursuance of the decision given in Naga Peoples’ Movement of Human Rights-vs-Union of India, AIR 1998.”
The arrest warrant also was contrary to regulations. The Killing
The enquiry establishes that Manorama, contrary to the AR claims, was brought to the Army camp at Chinga hillock. The AR personnel had claimed that Manorama had been taken to some places to identify where arms were cached by the insurgent groups, that she requested to get down from the vehicle to urinate and, on seeing some persons working in the paddy field, began to run. They claim they shot at her legs to stop her from escaping, but that she succumbed to injuries.
The Commission notes that Manorama, wearing a Manipuri Phanek, “would not be able to run fast”, and that the story told by the AR personnel is unconvincing. The Commission reminds that “a lady of small stature (4 feet 11 inches)” could easily have been prevented from escaping by “13 armed, well trained, and able-bodied Assam Rifles personnel.”
The Commission states “I am pained to note that the firings were unnecessary, a valuable life had been made to suffer harshly at the hands of the reckless armed.
Assam Rifles persons.” The Commission here quotes as relevant, the SC verdict in an Andhra Pradesh custodial killing case of 1981 – “the prominent feature of the murder, indeed the only feature, is its ruthless, unrelenting, determined vindictiveness. Every blow (here firing) seemed to say you shall die, you shall not live.”
Evidence of Custodial Killing
The Commission closely examined the injuries on Manorama’s body – injuries that tell a tale of torture that contradicts the AR’s version.
The Ballistics Expert consulted by the Commission explicitly started that at least 5 of the 8 bullet bullet injuries on Manorama’s body could not have been received while she was standing or running – in all of those she was either lying prone or bending forward. In the remaining 3 injuries, too, the expert while admitting the possibility of the ‘running away’ position, did not rule out the “standing, bending or prone” positions.
The bullet injuries also injured her genital organs. The oblique angle of fire required for such an injury means that it could not possibly have been received while she was running away.
“Thus, in this inquiry, the contention of the Assam Rifles that victim Manorama was shot at her legs while she was running in order to escape from the custody of the 17Assam Rifles is a naked lie….most of the injuries reveal that they were shot while the victim was in prone, while lying, bending positions with an intention to kill and even after she was in helpless condition.” Moreover, the bruises on Manorama’s wrists and inner thigh indicate that they could have occurred during sexual assault. A woman witness, Bilashini, working in the paddy fields near the spot where the body was eventually found, testified about Army vehicles drawing up and parking, and the area being cordoned off. She saw Army personnel lifting out a motionless body of a woman wearing a Phanek, and later she heard some gunshots fired at intervals. Another witness also testifies to hearing gunshots fired at intervals. The Commission here notes that one of the doctors of the Medical Board who did the second post-mortem, opined that some of the bullet injuries could have been post-mortem – i.e that Manorama’s dead body also was fired upon.
Was Manorama raped before she was killed?
The evidence of her family shows that she was subjected to sexual assault even at her own house, witnessed by her brother Basu. The petticoat worn by Manorama did show traces of human semen. The Commission reminds that when Basu saw his sister molested at their house, she was not wearing a petticoat. But she was asked by the AR team to change her clothes and she did so. The Commission notes that since this was a fresh petticoat and “the personnel of Assam Rifles being the last seen persons with the deceased, it is their bounden duty to discharge the onus and explain how human semen was found on the petticoat of the deceased.”
The Commission concludes that “the evidences and circumstances clearly indicate that victim Monorama might have been subject to rape and sexual harassment. The arresting team of the Assam Rifles with a view to cover up the crime over the person of the victim, had specifically fired on genital organ. …this aspect exposes not only barbaric attitude but also their attempt to fabricate false evidence with a view to cover up the offence committed by them.”
The Guilty – Protected by Impunity
“In view of the materials before the Commission and for the reasons given above, five persons viz. Major N. Dagar, Commander of the operational team of 17th Assam Rifles is responsible either directly or vicariously, four other personnel who joined in the operational team viz. Havildar Suresh Kumar, Rifleman T. Lotha, Rifleman Ajit Singh and Rifleman Saikia are directly responsible for the killing of Km. Manorama in the custody of the 17th Assam Rifles.”
The Commission recommends, “The outlook of the personnel of the security forces more particularly those coming from outside in aid of the civil powers, on the people of this state, requires to be changed. They think themselves that they are placed at the elevated status of impunity under the law and think only that they are given license to do whatever they like.”