There is evidence, there are eyewitnesses. Yet Rozer Irom’s parents are forced to seek justice in the Capital, reports Avalok Langer
HER EYES downcast, hugging the photo frame that holds the smiling face of her son, Irom Chitra Devi weeps inconsolably. “He was a good boy, he studied hard and dreamt of becoming a police officer one day. But he is dead now and all is lost,” says the mother, looking for justice for her murdered son.
On 20 March 2011, eight days before his 19th birthday, Chitra Devi’s son Rozer Irom was shot dead in broad daylight by N Ajai Meitei, son of a high-profile minister of Manipur, Nongthambam Biren Singh. “It was around 2 pm and we were driving towards the airport,” recounts an eyewitness. “A black Bolero with tinted windows and a flag post on the bonnet was driving ahead of us. The Bolero was blocking two girls on a Scooty and zigzagging, not allowing them to pass, and also slowing us down. Rozer, on the wheel, repeatedly blew the horn and flashed the headlights, but the car would not give way. After we had finally overtaken it, we drove at a slow pace. But, when they overtook us, Ajai shouted at us, “Who do you think you are? I’ll show you”. He took out a gun and fired. The bullet went right through Rozer’s neck and he died on the way to the hospital.”
Later that night, under public pressure, Ajai Meitei and four of his friends surrendered to the police and confessed to their crime. The cops had a confession, the gun, the bullet, the cartridge, multiple eyewitnesses and a body of a boy. It was all a question of bringing the perpetrator to justice.
Under normal circumstances, it should have been an open-and-shut case, but in Manipur, things are different. When justice is not about what you know but about what you can prove, the family of Rozer Irom feels that manipulation of evidence has already begun. “After two days, when we went to collect the body and asked for the post-mortem report, the head of the forensic department and the investigating officers tried to force my mother to sign a blank form, with no name or any subject on it. If we wanted the body, we had to sign. Manipulation started from the first day,” says 21-year-old Lemina Irom, sister of Rozer. When the family finally received a copy of the report, they were shocked to find that contrary to the statements given by the eyewitnesses, the post-mortem categorically stated that Rozer was shot at from a distance. “Witnesses saw everything, but in this high-profile case anything is possible,” adds Lemina. “Nongthambam Biren Singh is tipped to be the next chief minister of Manipur. He is a very powerful man. He will do all he can to save his son.” Singh is the minister of irrigation & flood control and food & civil supplies.
However, DGP Y Joykumar Singh puts it differently. “Maybe the confusion is arising because people are misunderstanding the report,” he explains. “When there is close-range firing, the skin gets charred and there is gunpowder residue on the body, but that was not the case here. It was close but not that close. Maybe that’s why there is a confusion.”
With the possibility of a doctored postmortem report, the case hinges upon the witnesses and the forensic report. While Ajai remains in judicial custody, the forensic department, headed by the same man who forced Chitra Devi to sign a blank form, has been unable to do its job citing power cuts. “After we protested demanding the report, the CM ensured that the department was given 10 days of uninterrupted power supply, but there is still no report,” says a family member.
Though DGP Singh has rubbished all claims of the family and witnesses being threatened, a key eyewitness has a different story to tell. “The investigating officer (IO), Vikramjit Singh gave me a piece of ‘friendly advice’. He said, ‘say the family wins the trial, Ajai will go in for murder but his friends will be released after a few years. You must think of the dire consequences that you and your family may face. Just think about that’.” Hounded by threatening calls, this key witness was forced to change his number and despite the removal of the IO, he lives in constant fear. As parents of the young witnesses voice their concerns over the harassment, Rozer’s family is trapped by circumstance. “We will fight this till the end, but how long will the witnesses stand by us? They are just young boys with their whole lives ahead of them. We understand their concerns but without them there is nothing,” they say.
‘As long as Biren Singh is a minister, there will be no fair trial,’ says Lemina, the victim’s sister
There should be some solace for the family now that besides the IO’S replacement, the DGP has also stated that “given the sensitivity of the case, the Cabinet has called for the CBI to move in and they should be taking over shortly”. However, they remain sceptical and label these steps as eyewash. “As long as Biren is a minister, there will be no fair trial,” avers Lemina. “He is honour-bound to step down and allow justice to prevail.”
Sources suggest that Biren Singh, former editor of Naharolgi Thoudang, not only has the backing of the state machinery but he controls the local media too. With no support forthcoming from the media, the family is distraught. “When I was forced to sign the blank form, there were dozens of reporters present but no one published a word,” Lemina translates for her mother. According to the family, Naharolgi Thoudang came out with an article stating that though Ajai had fired at Rozer, he missed and the boy was killed by another bullet fired from a distance. A second bullet, that no one heard, no one saw, and of which there was no mention in the initial reports, apparently killed Rozer. When Lemina confronted the editor of the daily, she was not ready for what she was told. “There are two police reports — the one you have, and the one on which we have based this article,” he said. Says an angry Lemina: “It is clear what they are doing, we can see through their plans but we can’t do anything to stop them.”
According to a lawyer, in such a case, generally the post-mortem and forensics reports hold precedence over a witness’ testimony. Though these reports can be challenged, it will have to be disproved scientifically. But, with the body already cremated, it may prove to be a tough task, albeit not an impossible one.
FOR HER part, Chitra Devi has knocked on every door asking for justice. On 24 March she met the Chief Minister of Manipur, Ibobi Singh. “As soon as I entered his room, the CM said to me: ‘You know what, Biren came to me. He was crying because his son had killed someone and he was very sad that problems will arise’. I was shocked, all I could say to him was, my only son is dead and you are feeling bad that Biren was crying. Please shoot me as well, I don’t want to live anymore,” says Chitra, breaking down once again.
‘He was a good boy, who dreamt of becoming a police officer one day,’ says Chitra Devi
Disillusioned in Manipur, Chitra’s pursuit for justice brought her to Delhi. On 30 April, she met Union Home Minister P Chidambaram. “I came all the way from Manipur to meet the home minister, but he just laughed at us. He said that since Biren did not kill my son, why should he resign?” she says. “He is not our leader. It’s just us against the government. Just because the Congress is in power at the Centre and the state, no one wants to fight for us, no one wants to tell our story, no one will help in our fight for justice.”
Holding back tears, daughter Lemina adds: “My brother and I were the best of friends and now he is gone. I will take this fight to the end, but this fight is not for him alone. He has gone and will never come back. This is for all the other sisters, mothers and fathers. No one should go through this, no one should lose a sibling, a son, a best friend.”
Avalok Langer is a Correspondent with Tehelka.