By Andrew Buncombe
The grief bubbles up like water from a spring. One woman gasps as she remembers being told her son had been involved in an accident, only to discover he was in fact shot dead in the street, his body riddled with bullets. A father can barely describe how he watched police kick his 12-year-old boy to the ground and shoot him in the back.
A teenager feels unable to confide to his college friends that his brother, a talented athlete, was accused of being a militant and killed by police, even though there was no evidence to support such claims.
For decades, the people of India’s north-eastern state of Manipur have lost loved ones to the intertwined violence of a separatist militancy and a massive counter-insurgency operation launched by the government. Activists say hundreds have been killed by the security forces in extra-judicial executions, yet no one has ever been held accountable.
But the wheels of change may be turning. Earlier this year, a inquiry established by India’s highest court found that in six cases – a sample of more than 1,500 incidents identified by activists between 1979 and 2010 – the security forces killed without justification and acted with “impunity”.
On Tuesday, those activists will return to the Supreme Court in Delhi to seek the prosecution of those responsible for the killings. Relatives of the six men killed have flown from Manipur to take a seat in the court’s viewing gallery. “We are hoping that the truth will triumph,” said Khumbongmayum Lata Devi, whose son Orsonjit, 19, was shot dead in 2010. “The state government has suppressed the truth for so long.”
The state of Manipur has been rocked by violence for more than 50 years, the result of attacks carried out by myriad militant separatist groups and the government’s resulting counter-insurgency operations.
Tens of thousands of police, soldiers and paramilitaries have been dispatched to the state, which borders Burma.
Relatives arrive in Delhi for a crucial court hearing (Andrew Buncombe)
Activists say the declaration of Manipur as a “disturbed area” and the enforcement of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a piece of legislation which gives broad sway to troops involved in operations in such areas, means that security forces often act without accountability. The same operational situation exists in the northern state of Kashmir.
“There should be a special criminal team to look into these cases... the families should be adequately compensated and the legal hurdles facing the victims’ relatives – such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act – should be dropped,” said Babloo Loitongbam, of Human Rights Alert, a campaign group based in Imphal, the state capital of Manipur.
In evidence to the panel’s members, police claimed the six young men were members of various militant groups that extort money and attack police posts and that they were killed in shoot-outs, or “encounters”, with the security forces. But the inquiry, headed by a former Supreme Court judge, Nitte Santosh Hegde, found that none of the men had criminal records and there was no convincing evidence they were members of banned organisations.
In each case, it concluded the victims were killed neither in a genuine shoot-out nor in the “exercise of the right to self-defence”.
Mohammed Wahid Ali told investigators he was at home in Phoubakchao, 25 miles south of Imphal, in the spring of 2009 when two dozen heavily armed police and paramilitaries arrived and dragged out his 12-year-old son, Mohammad Azad Khan.
Mr Ali and other family members were locked inside a room but they could see from a window as the troops dragged Mohammad to a spot near a pond, kicked him to the ground and shot him in the back.
The security forces claimed the boy and a friend had been running from the house, turned to shoot at them with pistols and they exchanged fire with them.
But a post-mortem examination suggested Mohammad was shot from a distance of just 30 inches (76cm). The panel concluded the “incident in which Mohammed was killed was not an encounter”.
The boy’s father said he was never told by police what his son was alleged to have done or what organisation he was alleged to have joined. “The security forces have never told us anything. They never gave any explanation,” he told The Independent.
Activists claim police in Manipur are encouraged to carry out such killings in order to win so-called “gallantry medals”, awards which can include a financial reward and lead to promotion. Speaking at an event in Delhi at the weekend, Satyabrata Pal, a former diplomat who is now a member of the government’s national human rights organisation, said of all the police forces in India, the one in Manipur was the most brutal.
He added: “The state government in Manipur is the only state government that stands by the police force in the face of overwhelming evidence.”
The authorities in Manipur have rejected the claims of activists. Both the police and the state government failed to respond to inquiries.
But earlier this year, the head of the state’s police force, Yumnam Joykumar Singh, claimed when speaking to Indian media, that the inquiry panel had not affixed responsibility of the six young men.
Colin Gonsalves, the lawyer who will represent the victims’ families in court on Tuesday, said the panel had been established by the judges to establish whether or not there was a case to answer.
“Now we have to wait and see if the court will order an inquiry and prosecution,” he said.
The relatives who have travelled from the north-east say Tuesday represents their best chance to secure justice. They cannot bring back those who have died, but they believe those who were responsible can be tried.
Chandrakala Devi, whose son 25-year-old son, Akoijam Priyobarta, was killed in 2009, said: “I feel certain that they will be punished.”