ON JULY 23, 2009, on an ordinary day in Imphal, six people were going about their morning chores in a crowded market on BT Road. P Lukhoi Singh, a rider working with the Assam Rifles, had just delivered a packet to the SP (CID) and had stopped to chat with a friend. Gimamgal, a peon, was cycling to work. Ningthonjam Keshorani, mother of three, was selling fruit. W Gita Rani had just visited her doctor and was trying to catch an autorickshaw. Rabina Devi, five months pregnant, was holding her 2-year-old son Russel’s hand and buying a banana before she met up with her husband, working at a mobile shop. And 22-year-old Chongkham Sanjit, a former insurgent, was on his way to buy medicine for a sick uncle in hospital.
Suddenly, a young man ran from a police frisking. Shots rang out. Lukhoi Singh heard a sound like “automatic firing” and tried to duck beneath his motorbike but was badly hit. He saw two cops walking into the crowd, firing. He told them he was hurt but they did not stop. Gimamgal heard a burst of sound and kept cycling. He didn’t realise he had been hit till he saw blood pouring down his body. His left arm was shattered. N Keshorani heard the gunfire and started to push her fruit cart away but buckled suddenly. She had been shot in the calf. Gita Rani just heard a sound. She didn’t realise she had been hit till she saw blood staining her chest. Rabina Devi just dropped dead. A bullet went straight through her forehead and out of her neck. Her little son saw his mother lying in a pool of blood and began to scream.
Sanjit was standing at a PCO when within minutes he was surrounded by commandos. There were four civilians injured and one dead on the road: the cops needed an alibi. On that busy road, in the middle of a crowded market, in full view of Manipur’s citizens, Sanjit was dragged into a pharmacy next door and shot point blank. His body was then dragged out by the commandos and tossed into a truck along with Rabina Devi.
All of this passed for a routine day in Manipur. The area was not cordoned off, no forensics were called in. The State Assembly was in session when the incident happened. By late afternoon, Chief Minister Ibobi Singh had tabled a statement saying Sanjit, a member of PLA, a proscribed militant outfit, had shot five civilians while trying to escape a police frisking but Manipur’s brave commandos had killed him in an encounter. A 9mm Mauser was found on him. The CM also said there was no way to stem the menace of insurgents except to “eliminate” them (a statement he later denied). The Opposition swallowed the story without question. Everyone went back to business.
Manipur is a dark shadow land. Nothing there is what it seems. Fear and fatigue have become its universal character traits. It is estimated that about 300 people have been killed in 2009 alone between insurgents and state forces. But nobody dares to raise any questions. People suspect things, but in the absence of proof, they look away. Each time someone dies, the neighbourhood constitutes a Joint Action Committee (JAC). Token protests are made, sometimes followed by token compensations, and everyone tries to live on. The same would have happened this time, except an anonymous photographer captured the damning extra-judicial killing of Sanjit on camera. Terrified of publishing the pictures in local papers, the photographer contacted TEHELKA.
Our story – Murder in Plain Sight – published last week was like a pressure cooker burst. As the story traveled, protests erupted across the state. People everywhere poured into the streets, demanding a judicial enquiry and the chief minister’s resignation. Young boys fought off commandos with slingshots and marbles. Women stretched their phaneks across roads as deterrents (Manipuri men are traditionally forbidden to touch women’s clothes drying on a clothesline) and openly courted arrested. As L Gyaneshwari, a women protestor recovering in hospital, says, “TEHELKA opened the gates to the tears blocked within us. We have always known the truth about these killings but we never had any evidence and had lost the strength to speak. Now, we’ve found courage again. If a vegetable vendor had not grabbed Rabina Devi’s bag and kept it with her, the commandos would have put a 9mm in it and passed her off as a militant as well.” “TEHELKA has woken up Manipur,” says Arun Irengbam, editor of the news daily, Ireipak. The sentiment runs strong. “We cannot thank TEHELKA enough for bringing the truth to light,” says Dayanada Chingtham, co-ordinator of the Apunba Lup, an apex body of activist groups. “We wish you had done this story two years earlier, our police have become too brazen,” says a man, working — ironically — in the office of Joy Kumar, the DGP of Police and the man, in a sense, at the heart of the storm.