Manipur staged encounters: How far can CBI, Supreme Court push?
Among the least surprising matters in Manipur is the progress of investigating staged encounters—and other forms of extra-judicial killings, to use a chilling euphemism. The Supreme Court is displeased with the speed of what is among the most high-profile reviews of brutal governance in India, which the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is tasked by the court to investigate.
Since March 2017, Manipur has been governed by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition, which snapped a three-term Congress streak. But the review will likely indict both parties and their players in this politically incestuous state where responsibility is usually a schizophrenic exercise. That’s the problem for any solution.
The matter was brought to the Supreme Court as part of a public interest litigation, or PIL, by the Extra-judicial Execution Victim Families Association, Manipur, with its motive force and partner in the PIL, Imphal-based Human Rights Alert (HRA). HRA has been at the forefront of documenting human rights violations and seeking redress for victims for more than a decade. The PIL alleged 1,528 extra-judicial killings between 1980 and 2011 for which it variously held responsible the Indian Army, its adjunct Assam Rifles, central paramilitary forces, and Manipur police—which for several years leveraged the spirit of impunity and immunity prescribed under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, commonly known as Afspa. As in Jammu & Kashmir, where a variation of the law is in force, Afspa is an emotive matter in Manipur.
On 14 July 2017, a Supreme Court bench ordered CBI, which was tasked to the process by the central government, to conclude investigation into “fake encounters or use of excessive or retaliatory force” by the end of 2017. That was also the deadline for filing cases. CBI undertook to investigate 97 instances of extra-judicial killings between 2000 and 2011. The court mentioned it would review progress and CBI’s compliance in January 2018.
On 16 January, a Supreme Court bench expressed displeasure at the speed of CBI’s investigation and compliance of deadline, and urged the agency’s director to step up. The judicial ticking off mentioned a hearing on 12 February, when more legal fire and brimstone could follow.
And what if it does? What can the court really do? Will it really matter that the court during an April 2017 hearing directed that cases of the army and Assam Rifles, and those of the police be segregated for investigation and judicial process, a precise observation? Will it matter that it bravely and correctly dismissed a plea that internal inquiry and investigation by the army into several incidents in which army personnel stand accused is adequate from the perspective of human rights?
Perhaps not, because Manipur is as much a human rights circus as it is a political one, and because the army will fight it tooth and nail (on 28 January, India’s chief of army staff was cited as saying in a Press Trust of India report that the time wasn’t right “to even rethink on AFSPA”). While central governments have almost always gone with the army point of view on Afspa and extra-judicial killings, I would watch with great interest political machinations in Manipur, the stall-and-obfuscate play over CBI’s investigation even with the Supreme Court’s applied pressure.
For most of the years that now form part of CBI’s investigation, Okram Ibobi Singh of the Congress was chief minister. Nongthombam Biren Singh, a former protégé of Ibobi’s, switched sides very late into the campaign for assembly elections in early 2017, and rapidly went from BJP spokesperson to BJP’s chief ministerial choice. Biren remains BJP’s Trojan horse turned white knight, and the jury is out on just how much his government would assist CBI’s investigation.
That brings us to Yumnam Joykumar Singh of the National People’s Party, which with others offered Biren’s BJP government coalition support to keep the Congress and Ibobi out of a possible fourth term. (Congress won more seats than BJP in the assembly elections.)
I have mentioned this earlier and I shall do so again. Joykumar served two stints as Manipur’s director general of police, once from March 2007 to January 2012, and again from June that year until his retirement in August 2013. Joykumar was considered chief minister Ibobi’s hatchet man during that time, and the Joykumar years within the Ibobi years have long been considered as troubling by most human rights organizations, for transforming Manipur police—and, in particular the elite Manipur Police Commandos—into a near-private army that did as it pleased.
It is transparently a situation in which several of those closely associated with the former Congress-led governments are now in power with BJP in Manipur, which also rules India. How far can CBI push in this environment, even if the Supreme Court keeps pushing CBI?
Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.