The facts relating to Thangjam Ningol Manorama alias Henthoi are well known. A posse of soldiers from Assam Rifles, including Havildar Suresh Kumar, Riflemen Ajit Singh and T. Lotha and unidentified others entered the house of Thangjam Manorama, a 32-years-old woman, in Imphal, together with others at midnight on the night of July 10 and 11. Their names are known because they gave her family a kind of receipt for taking her away. They first bolted the door of the house so that the family could not interfere, and beat her outside the house for three hours. Then they took her away. At 5 PM the next afternoon, her corpse was found naked and riddled with bullets. Whether she had been raped or not could not be ascertained because she had been shot through the vagina.
The official spokesman of Assam Rifles said that Henthoi was shot when she tried to escape while leading the soldiers to a PLA hideout. He said that when she was arrested, a wireless radio, a hand grenade and incriminating documents were found on her. Her family, from whom she was snatched away, denies it, and the receipt it was given does not mention any of these possessions. Incidentally, Assam Rifles is a paramilitary force which is officered by the army but used for static duties like guarding sensitive places and operating against local insurgencies. It was raised as Cachar Levy in 1835 when the British were penetrating the northeastern hills and facing hostility from local tribesmen; it set up armed encampments and guarded caravans. After independence, India has raised huge paramilitary forces for anti-insurgency and support to state police. Assam Rifles has been expanded to 33 battalions 'over 15,000 men' and been deployed for static duties in the northeast. It is Assamese only in name; a high proportion of the men are north Indians. Manipur has been up in arms ever since the abduction and killing of Henthoi.
Women stripped their clothes and demonstrated, daring the soldiers to rape them. In the days that followed, there were demonstrations every day. Government offices were attacked; in return, the police fired tear gas and rubber bullets. People defied curfew and came out and formed human chains. They boycotted Indian goods. Hospitals had treated 415 injured people till August 17. On Independence Day, Pebam Chittaranjan Mangang, set himself on fire against the atrocities of the armed forces and killed himself. The major demand of the agitators is the withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which gives the soldiers and the police arbitrary powers to arrest and torture people. For AFSPA to be applicable for now, the state government has to declare a certain place a disturbed area. On August 12, the government declared that the Imphal municipal area was no longer disturbed. The Central government can still apply AFSPA to Imphal. But Ikram Ibobi Singh, the chief minister, sent Rishang Keishing, a former chief minister, to Manmohan Singh, and asked the Prime Minister not to act in haste. Till now, the Prime Minister has not acted at all.
At 4 AM on June 15, the police shot up a car travelling from Bombay towards Ahmedabad and killed all four passengers. One was a 19-years-old college girl from Mumbra near Bombay, Ishrat Jahan Raza. Another was a 32-years-old Malayali born a Hindu but converted to Islam, Javed Ghulam Sheikh. The other two are unidentified; no one claimed their bodies. The Gujarat police claimed that the four were going to assassinate Narendra Modi, and that the two unidentified persons were Pakistanis.
At this point I run out of words for unlike in Manipur, the killing of the four did not cause even a ripple in Gujarat. No human chains were formed, no strike was declared, no policemen were attacked, no one asked for the powers of the police to be curbed.
And yet what happened in both places is uncannily similar. Security forces killed people, and claimed ex-post that they were terrorists. Let us not ask whether they were right or not; for the answer must inevitably be a guess, and the guess will be highly correlated with our political beliefs. If we think that Manipur is rife with terrorists who want to secede from India and must be confounded at all costs, we will believe Assam Rifles in Manipur; if we think that Gujarat is a frontier state facing a grave threat of covert action from Pakistan, we will believe the Gujarat police. But after having believed whatever we want to, for belief in this case is a matter of inclination, let us ask whether the answers of the security forces in both cases are acceptable. Should those involved in protecting us have the right to kill someone who they think is a terrorist or rebel or antinational or whatever'
I would say that they should not, for if we allow them to use their judgment in killing citizens of India, any citizen of India ' you, me, Amitabh Bachchan ' could be killed tomorrow and branded a traitor. I have lived in many countries; I have travelled to many more. My countrymen live in greater misery than most people in this world; they face great economic tribulations in their lives. But one thing that has struck me is, how little we are oppressed by the state; and how arbitrarily state officials act by habit in less democratic countries. What I write would be unthinkable in many countries. True; such gross injustices do occur in this country as the Tehelka affair. But the Tehelka heroes are surviving, and some are even flourishing. Tarun Tejpal has started a magazine; Anirudh Bahal is riding in tanks with American soldiers in Iraq. However rickety our democracy may be, the freedom it gives is real, and even if we think that Manorama was a terrorist, that Ishrat was an assassin, we must insist that it was wrong of security forces to kill them.
This practice of killing suspects was begun by K.P.S. Gill when he was directing operations against Khalistani terrorists. He managed to control a seemingly uncontrollable insurgency; within three years he brought it to its knees. And he dealt a deathblow to our love of freedom. His success convinced us that foul means were justified to protect our freedom; we did not and do not realize that they will actually destroy our freedom. They have destroyed it in some parts of India; talk to the Kashmiris and Manipuris, or to young girls from Mumbra driving into Gujarat about democratic freedom. And what has happened to them will happen to us unless we discipline our security forces. In Argentina, in Chile, in Guatemala, the army killed thousands of people like you and me and buried them in mass graves. They have a word for it there desaparacidos. That will happen here. It can happen to us.
That is why I would appeal to Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Shivraj Patil, do not tolerate killings by security forces. Not even by state police. Make a law to arrest every soldier or policeman guilty of killing civilians; try each one of them for murder. You do not have to hang them all, but for goodness sake, try them. For each of them is driving a nail in the coffin of the democracy that you rule.