Body of lies

Thangjam Manorama's family tells the untold the story of her final hours

On October 13, a summary general court martial held at an Army unit in Assam’s Dibrugarh district sentenced a major general, two colonels and four soldiers to life imprisonment. The court found that they were involved in the killing, in 1994, of four members of the All Assam Students Union, whom they branded members of the militant United Liberation Front of Asom.

One of the men grabbed Manorama and tried to drag her outside. He gagged her when she called out, “Ima, Ima, khamu (Mother, mother, please stop them).”
From the main door that was ajar, Dolendro saw his sister being forced to sit on a bench on the verandah, while a soldier held her by her hair. They were preparing to waterboard her.
Assam Rifles maintained that Manorama was shot dead while trying to escape. The commission termed it “a concocted story which cannot be accepted”.
It [the Manorama killing] is the most high-profile case involving senior officials, and we had no control over it. - Renu Takhellambam, president of the organisation that filed the writ petition in the Supreme Court, asking for inquiries into extrajudicial killings in Manipur
Through the window, I saw them taking off didi’s clothes. You wanted to know whether I saw her being raped? Yes, I saw them doing ghastly things. - Basu Singh, Manorama's younger brother

Cases related to rights violations and alleged fake encounters are hounding the Army. On August 14, as many as 356 officers filed a writ petition asking the Supreme Court to stay all court-monitored investigations into alleged fake encounters by the Army. The petition repeatedly mentions the barrage of cases against the Army in Manipur, which has had 1,500 cases of encounter killings in the past two decades.

Last year, the Supreme Court ordered the CBI to inquire into 46 of 1,528 alleged extrajudicial killings in Manipur. Sadly, though, almost everyone seems to have forgotten the state’s most notorious fake encounter. In fact, there is not even a first information report about the killing that shocked India—the killing of Thangjam Manorama in 2004.

IMPHAL’S HEART HAS for long belonged to women.

The proof of it is a sprawling market in the heart of the city, where more than 5,000 women vendors sell everything from clothes and handicrafts, to dried fish and the famous umorok chilli. The place is called Ima Keithal, meaning mother’s market in the Meitei language. The keithal is run by married women; male vendors are banned.

It was history that gave Imphal’s heart to the mothers. For centuries, frequent battles and forced labour kept the men of Manipur away from their families. The women worked the fields and sold the produce in makeshift marketplaces. These markets evolved into independent bodies and became symbols of empowerment. When the British tried to seize their control, they got embroiled in nupi lan (women’s war), a series of historic struggles the mothers fought from 1904 to 1939.

Ima Keithal, the largest of the women-only marketplaces in Imphal, is today calmer than it had been in decades. Long gone is the intensity of mothers’ protests against human rights violations and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Unlike a year ago, business hours now extend late into evenings. There is no rush to go back home as soon as dusk falls.

There is a general feeling of calm even around the city. Roads are no longer deserted at night. The only unsettling sight is of Army personnel patrolling the streets, fingers resting on triggers.

The change has been attributed to the BJP, which came to power in March last year, ending the 15-year Congress rule under chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh. Even Congress leaders admit it, albeit sardonically. “You are seeing calm because the people who used to incite terror outfits are today part of the government,” said state Congress president T.N. Haokip. “But I am not sure whether the calm would last long.”

The writing is on the wall, quite literally. There are slogans graffitied into walls outside Ima Keithal, the state secretariat and even the chief minister’s bungalow. Justice delayed is justice denied, says one message. Let’s honour the law, says another. The reference is to the alleged extrajudicial killings. Clearly, peace in Manipur will depend a lot on the progress of the ongoing CBI inquiries, and their results.

Everyone, however, is at a loss to explain how the killing of Manorama is not being investigated. Her body was found near a paddy field on the morning of July 11, 2004, with multiple gunshot wounds and other injuries on her genitals and thighs. The previous night, a contingent of 17 Assam Rifles had taken Manorama, 32, into custody from her home, and her brother had lodged a complaint at the nearby Irilbung police station at dawn.

As news of her brutal killing and alleged rape spread, Assam Rifles claimed that she was shot while trying to escape, and that she was a key member of the Myanmar-based separatist outfit People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Her family said she was an activist who was not involved in any crime. A day after the body was discovered, the state government constituted an inquiry commission under Justice C. Upendra Singh, known to be an upright and fearless judge. But it failed to put a lid on the billowing public anger.

On the morning of July 15, a group of women gathered at the western gate of the historic Kangla Fort, once the seat of power of Manipur’s kings. Barely a kilometre from Ima Keithal, the Kangla Fort housed the office of the commandant of 17 Assam Rifles. As the women waved banners in protest, some of them took off their clothes. “Indian Army, rape us, too,” they screamed. “We are all Manorama’s mothers.”

The naked protest got nationwide attention. Assam Rifles, however, insisted that Manorama was a “dreaded insurgent”, expert at making explosives and that her codename in the PLA was Henthoi.

Fourteen years later, the government is yet to bring closure to the case. In fact, there is no ongoing investigation—either by the police or by any Central agency—into her killing. Seven of 13 women who led the naked protest are no more, while age and illness have caught up with the rest. The report of the Upendra Singh commission was submitted to the state government in November 2004, but it was kept secret.

In December 2014, while hearing a petition challenging the legal validity of constituting the Upendra Singh commission, the Supreme Court directed the government to pay Rs 10 lakh as interim compensation to Manorama’s family. The money was paid this year.

The campaign to bring Manorama’s killers to book has fizzled out. Which begs a question: Has Manipur forgotten Manorama? “Actually, no,” said Onil Kshetrimayum, a human rights activist. “The Manorama case gave us the courage to fight against AFSPA. But, the reality is, many more cases have come up after that.”

Painful memories: Khumanleima holding Manorama's picture. Flanking her are Manorama's two brothers and sister, Sunita | Salil Bera Painful memories: Khumanleima holding Manorama's picture. Flanking her are Manorama's two brothers and sister, Sunita | Salil Bera

The Supreme Court ordered CBI inquiries into the 46 cases following a writ petition in 2012 by the Extra Judicial Execution Victims Families Association (EEVFAM). Its president Renu Takhellambam said it was difficult to explain why she did not press for the inclusion of the Manorama case in the CBI list. “It is the most high-profile case involving senior officials, and we had no control over it,” she said. “Also, the family recently got Rs 10 lakh as compensation, so some justice was done. So we did not take it up.”

EEVFAM, actually, had filed its petition in 2012—two years before the Supreme Court ordered the compensation.

Manorama had no police record. “We inquired into her past in detail,” said Haokip, who was speaker of the legislative assembly when she was killed. “There was no [incriminating] information. We don’t believe she was an insurgent. She belonged to a very poor family.”

The arrest memo was allegedly forged, and it did not have the mandatory signature of a third-party witness. And no policewoman was present while taking Manorama into custody, nor was she handed over to any police station. In fact, “no information about her arrest was given by the arresting party at any police station before her death, even [though] she was taken to various places,” said the inquiry commission report.

Manorama Manorama

After keeping the inquiry report under wraps for a decade, the government finally handed it over to the Supreme Court in November 2014, during the hearing on the petition filed by EEVFAM. The contents of the report are as explosive as they are disquieting.

The inquiry report says troops of 17 Assam Rifles cordoned off Manorama’s house at 12.30am on July 11, 2004. Being unmarried, she lived with her mother, Khumanleima Devi, and two younger brothers, Basu Singh and Dolendro Meitei. Basu was watching a Hindi film, Raju Chacha, on television when seven men in military uniforms and two in civilian clothes broke into his room.

Khumanleima, too, rushed in. One of the men asked them something in Hindi. Basu and his mother did not respond, as they did not know the language. A man who appeared to be a Meitei then asked them in the local language, “Nakhoi sida Henthoi kouba leibra (Is there a person named Henthoi here)?”

The mother and son said no. Just then, Manorama and Dolendro entered the room. One of the men in civilian clothes grabbed Manorama and tried to drag her outside. He gagged her when she called out, “Ima, Ima, khamu (Mother, mother, please stop them).” The mother was shoved aside twice and was hurt.

According to the report, the soldiers took Manorama to the courtyard, and asked others to stay put inside. As they tied her hands and began interrogating her, a soldier took a towel and some clothes from Basu’s room. Another took a knife and an aluminium vessel from the kitchen. From the main door that was ajar, Dolendro saw his sister being forced to sit on a bench on the verandah, while a soldier held her by her hair. They were preparing to waterboard her.

They demanded that she tell them about hidden weapons and explosives. Says the inquiry report: “Then, Basu went to the room of his sister… and, when he slightly opened the window of that room, saw Manorama lying on her back on the ground, her hands behind her back. A personnel [dressed in civilian clothes] knelt on the left side of his sister and, with his right hand, inserted the kitchen knife under her underwear.”

Manorama was wearing a phanek, the sarong-like outfit of Manipuri women. The soldier pulled her phanek down to her knees, and unbuttoned and pulled up her T-shirt to expose her breast. Another soldier, who saw Basu watching through the window, smashed the wooden grille with the butt of his rifle. Basu was taken away, while Dolendro was questioned about his sister’s accomplices.

Manorama was taken back inside the house after a while. Her face was swollen, her mouth gagged, and her clothes were wet and soiled. She was asked to change in front of the soldiers. “Thereafter, about three personnel of the arresting party dragged Manorama out of her room, holding her hair, and forced her to sit on a bench on the veranda,” says the report. “One person left behind the kitchen knife, [which was] stained with blood. [Another person] prepared the arrest memo, on which Manorama and Dolendro were made to sign. The thumb mark of Khumanleima was obtained with the ink of a ball-pen refill. A copy of the arrest memo and a no-claim certificate were given to the family.”

Mothers of fury: Women protesters at Kangla Fort in 2004 | Getty Images Mothers of fury: Women protesters at Kangla Fort in 2004 | Getty Images

The time of the arrest is disputed. Assam Rifles said the arrest memo was issued at 3.30am, while Manorama’s mother and brothers maintained that she was arrested at 12.30am. They told the commission that the soldiers remained at their home “for some hours, or [a] considerable time” after preparing and handing over the memo. Interestingly, the memo says no items were seized from the house. Still, Assam Rifles submitted a ‘seizure memo’ during the commission’s inquiry, saying a Singapore-made Kenwood radio set and a Chinese grenade were recovered from Manorama’s house.

The inquiry report points out discrepancies in the seizure and arrest memos. It also notes that the “seizing officer and two seizure witnesses”—who were part of the arresting party—had no knowledge of the alleged recovery of incriminating articles from the house. Also, Manorama’s name is misspelt in the seizure memo, and her signature is apparently not genuine.

There is little clarity on what happened after Manorama was taken from her house, other than that her arrest was not reported to the police or civilian authorities. Assam Rifles personnel told the commission that Manorama had told them the whereabouts of a PLA lieutenant called Ruby. But the commission said their submissions were “difficult to believe”.

The commission cites the statements of Major M.S. Rathore, who was part of the group that arrested Manorama. After the arrest, Rathore telephoned an Army rifleman stationed at the police control room near Imphal, telling him to request the police to dispatch a lady constable to the nearby Assam Rifles camp at Chinga. “There is every possibility of bringing Manorama first to the Assam Rifles camp at Chinga, and then [to] where her dead body was found,” says the report.

Renu Takhellambam Renu Takhellambam

Assam Rifles maintained that Manorama was shot dead while trying to escape. It told the commission that she wanted to relieve herself when the convoy reached Yairipok road, about 3km from the Irilbung police station. She was allowed to do it in an open area by the road, near a hedge along a paddy field, but she ran after seeing people working in the field. A havildar shouted in Hindi, “Ruko, ruko (stop, stop). When Manorama did not stop, said the soldiers, a warning shot was fired in the air, before they took aim at her legs.

The commission termed it “a concocted story which cannot be accepted”, after asking questions such as: How could a barely 5ft-tall woman in a phanek outmanoeuvre 13 armed and well-trained soldiers? How could a woman in a phanek, with her hands tied behind her back, outrun the soldiers? Why didn’t they issue a warning in the local language (as required by rules) before they fired? And how come not a single bullet, out of the 16 fired, had hit Manorama’s legs?

Belying the claim that she was shot at while fleeing, a second autopsy revealed that two bullets hit her from the front. (This autopsy was supervised by a three-member medical board, after the doctor who conducted the first one, H. Nabachandra Singh, allegedly did not do certain examinations that could have shed light on the cause and manner of her death.) The second autopsy concluded that she was shot from close range—as close as three feet.

There were bloodstains only on her clothes. No pool of blood was seen at the spot. As her heart was perforated, at least a litre of blood should have been on the spot, had she been shot there.

Depositions of at least two civilian witnesses indicated that the soldiers killed her elsewhere and dumped the body in the paddy field. One civilian witness, P. Bilashini, whose family owned a nearby paddy field, told the commission that she saw four military vehicles approaching from the Irilbung side and cordoning off the road. “Then, three persons in Army uniforms took down a body, which appeared to be female [because of the phanek],” says the report. “The person appeared to be lifeless…. They took the body towards a hillock, and after about two minutes, [Bilashini] heard one gunshot. Thereafter, at intervals of one or two minutes, she heard another five or six rounds of firing.”

Basu Singh | Salil Bera Basu Singh | Salil Bera

The ballistics expert deposed that a person who was running could not sustain some of the gunshot wounds seen on Manorama’s body. The autopsy found that her vagina, hymen and uterus were lacerated, and the petticoat had blood and semen stains. The vaginal swab collected during the autopsy could have pointed to rape, but it was handed over to the police only 11 days later.

An injury in the vaginal area suggested that she was shot while she lay flat, face downwards. “The arresting team of Assam Rifles fired on [Manorama’s] genital organ,” says the report. “It appears that this aspect exposes not only [the team’s] barbaric attitude, but also their attempt to fabricate evidence with a view to cover up the offence committed by them.”

The commission had been asked to submit its report within a month, but it extended the deadline three times, partly because Assam Rifles delayed affidavits and production of witnesses, and dodged summons several times. Col Jagmohan Singh, commandant of 17 Assam Rifles, challenged in the Gauhati High Court the legal validity of the commission. Even after the court upheld the validity, Assam Rifles delayed procedures, compelling the commission to issue arrest warrants against four of its witnesses.

The first information report lodged at the Irilbung police station, signed by Naib Subedar Digamber Dutt, had details about the arrest and the items seized from her house. Dutt, however, told the commission that he did not know what was written in the FIR, and that he had signed it only because Major Rathore had asked him to do so. Dutt was named as the ‘seizing officer’ in the seizure memo; but he deposed that he had not witnessed the seizure. He, and two others who had signed as witnesses in the memo, had no knowledge of how and when Manorama’s signature was obtained for the document. The arrest and seizure memos were prepared by Major Rathore, but he did not sign them. The reason cited was that he was an officer of the Army on deputation to Assam Rifles.

Submitting its report to the government in November 2004, the commission termed Manorama’s killing as “one of the worst crimes in a civilised society governed by the rule of law”. It said nine personnel of 17 Assam Rifles, including Major N. Dagar, who led the arrest party, were directly or indirectly involved in the torture and murder of Manorama.

Manorama’s mother, Khumanleima, 73, spends most of her time sitting in the courtyard full of painful memories. The compensation she received was used to rebuild the house—the thatched roof is now a concrete one. A part of the money has gone into a bank account, so that a committee of local people could observe Manorama’s death anniversary every year.

Both the brothers are now married, with children. Dolendro said he had failed to get a government job, as he could not pay 05 lakh as bribe. He was also denied a bank loan under the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana to start a business.

Their elder sister had married well before Manorama was killed. Manorama was the family’s breadwinner—she used to stitch clothes and sell them at a local garment market. “Didi paid our school fees,” said Dolendro. “I passed college thanks to her. Basu dropped out of school after didi’s death. Today, I continue the business she ran.”

Basu sells fish at a market in Imphal. The sight of his sister being tortured is burnt into his memory. “I was 18 then,” he said. “Through the window, I saw them taking off didi’s clothes. You wanted to know whether I saw her being raped? Yes, I saw them doing ghastly things.” Could he still identify the soldiers? “I would not be able to forget them till I die,” he said.

After the ordeal, Basu said, the soldiers took Manorama to her room. “They closed the door after them,” he said. “She was forced to change her dress in front of them.”

Manorama came out wearing a fresh phanek and a petticoat beneath it—the same one on which a forensic lab in Kolkata later detected semen stains. After she left, her mother washed the soiled clothes. In hindsight, they realise that it was a mistake. But then, they thought the worst was over. Before she left, she had told Dolendro: “They did what they wanted to do. Bring me home from the police station in the morning.”

The memories are haunting. “I was in college then,” said Renu Takhellambam. “Shortly after the incident, curfew was declared. My father asked me to stay indoors for days.” Her parents got her to marry rather early, though she wanted to study further.

Parents across Manipur did so, to protect their daughters from being raped. “Murders and rapes by security forces were rampant in Manipur for years,” said Renu. “Our parents were more worried about rape. It was worse than death.”

Renu’s husband was shot in 2007, after being branded a terrorist. She has a 10-year-old son. It was for his sake, too, that she went to the Supreme Court, seeking inquiry into the extrajudicial killings in Manipur.

“I am ashamed being a politician in Manipur,” said Haokip. “The kind of treatment the Manorama case has received makes me feel that justice in India is not for poor people.”

Haokip said he had not seen the inquiry commission’s report. Chief minister Ibobi Singh neither shared it with his cabinet nor tabled it in the assembly. The two autopsy reports and the ballistics record were also not made public.

Manorama’s family went to the High Court seeking a criminal investigation based on the commission’s report. “The court, in 2011, asked the state to act on the report,” said the family’s counsel M. Rakesh.

But Assam Rifles filed an appeal in the Supreme Court. The matter has since been pending, with hearings postponed every six months or so, said Rakesh.

Politicians, too, failed Manorama. Three days after the killing, minister N. Biren Singh stormed into Ibobi Singh’s room, demanding investigation. “It was a horrible situation,” recalled Haokip. “Our government was about to fall. A team of MLAs led by Biren Singh came to the chief minister with resignation letters. Prime minister Manmohan Singh had to rush to Imphal to control the damage.”

Haokip said Biren Singh had even disrupted the assembly. “Pity that the minister who created trouble for us then is in the chief minister’s chair today,” he said. “Can’t he make the Central government request the Supreme Court to speed up the case?” Biren Singh joined the BJP last year.

Ibobi Singh declined to speak about the killing. “It would not be proper for me to talk on this,” he said. “Yes, I had ordered the inquiry, but it is now between the court and the government of the day.”

Biren Singh said he had not seen the commission’s report, not even after becoming chief minister.

THE WEEK has learnt that the Army recently started a court of inquiry into the killing, but the proceedings are yet to begin. Its Eastern Command did not respond to requests for comment. But, a senior officer of III Corps, which oversees Assam Rifles, said, “It is pathetic that because of a few officers the Army has to bear a bad name. They should be punished if guilty.”

Are they guilty? And was she a terrorist? If they are not guilty, why was the family given Rs 10 lakh as compensation? As the lawyer Rakesh said, “Can the Supreme Court, or an elected government, pay compensation to a terrorist?”

The report of the judicial commission that shed light on the circumstances that led to Manorama’s death has been in the public domain for the past four years. The story of her final hours, however, has mostly remained untold.

Until now, that is.