ko ko thett is the co-editor of Picking Off New Shoots Will Not Stop the Spring, a new collection of “witness essays and poems from Burma/Myanmar 1988-2021.”
Manorama Is Dead But Speaks
Through the Mothers of Manipur
Mothers of Manipur
Naked they stood up, my mothers of Manipur
My eyes are born from their eyes
All that I speak is from them, from their music
Naked they stood up, my mothers of Manipur.
Can the Army and the Police do anything they like?
Nobody is allowed in the streets, only smoke goes by
Nobody can speak up? No way to protest?
Naked they stood up, my mothers of Manipur.
Army jeeps move around under the sky
Army jeeps sing our National song
There is unbuttoning in one jeep
A girl reeled into the jeep.
Should the girl go home?
Should the girl die under the sky?
The Police have erased her name
What’s her address? A village outside Imphal?
This is what happens everyday
A young girl is found unconscious
Somewhere else her younger sister missing
Only their scarves flutter from trees.
But, in the month of July, the limit is passed
Naked they stood up, the breast-milk-givers
Let the world watch the veins in their chest
How do you feel when you see your own mother naked?
As Assam Rifles shut down the gates
I feel as I did in the womb
I feel the river Ganga streaming out hot
The mothers of Manipur redefined mothers.
Where mothers walk naked in protest
Colonels, commanders, what did you do?
Do you think your Mom still remains Mom?
She is burning, she is burning
Inside every mother,
A mother within mother.
Translated from Bengali by the author with Christopher Merrill
Manipur, a small hill state in Eastern India, is a beautiful, lush green place which includes nine mountain peaks of the Himalayan range. It is well connected by air and railways, and shares international borders with Bangladesh and Myanmar. Geographically, Manipur is an example of a shifting paradigm as on the one hand it has been a joy of beauty for centuries and on the other, a corridor of crimes in recent times, especially in last two decades, due to easy check-posts at international borders. The people of Manipur are mostly soft-spoken with a ready embarrassed smile on their lips. When the Manipuri boys and girls walk down the prehistorically pastoral paths to their morning schools, they appear to be dancing butterflies.
This is the poem I wrote the night I could not sleep, an hour after I came to know what happened in Manipur. I was shocked by the news of the death of Manorama but I was shattered by the unprecedented form of protest by the elderly women who stripped naked in public. Indian women are traditionally introverts, fighting shy of any road show or street performance, but strangely enough, by stripping naked in front of the headquarters of the Assam Rifles, they had become stronger than we imagined them.
The Special Security Armed Force deployed in Assam and Manipur is given an extraordinary power by a special military act of 1958. As per this act, its members are not accountable for any of their actions while on duty. The force has virtually been given the license to kill the people they do not like. An enormous amount power is handed to commissioned or non-commissioned military personnel for maintaining public order.
The murder once again brings to light the abuse of the Special Power Act by the Armed Forces. It was introduced in the state of Manipur in 1980. This law empowers Army officers to open fire, arrest or conduct search operations for maintenance of public order without a warrant. The para-military officers, charged with taking care of the people, used this Act to perpetrate certain criminal offences over the years which haunted the minds of the people of Manipur. Snatching a girl from her school or home and dropping her back unconscious has been among the most common practices of the military jawans against which there was no voice, no protest, no First Information Report (a formal police complaint without which they are not duty-bound to take action). In fact, nobody had the guts to rise against the military force; those who did, did not exist the next day.
In the month of July, 2004 something happened that had shaken not only the state of Manipur but took the nation by surprise.
The Assam Rifles picked up Manorama from her home on July 11, 2004. Later that day, her bullet-riddled body, tortured and sexually abused, was found 4 km away from her house. The claim of the Assam Rifles was that she was a member of the outlawed People's Liberation Army (PLA) and an explosives expert responsible for recruiting cadres into the outfit. According to them, she was shot when she tried to flee on the pretext of responding to nature's call.
Civil society groups in Manipur have been seeking the withdrawal of this "black law" from the state. Their argument is that the application of the Act in Manipur has actually been serving the interests of the insurgent groups by giving them a cause to be terrorists.
The authorities seem to have been forced into retreat. Due to the snowballing violence in the state following the death of Manorama and the widespread clashes between police and mobs leaving hundreds of people injured, the Chief Minister, the executive head of the state government ordered a judicial probe; Assam Rifles has instituted a court of inquiry and has temporarily stopped the counter-insurgency operations of the unit involved in picking up Manorama.
The true story
According to the victim's family, “the troops of the 17 Assam Rifles along with two Manipuri-speaking persons came to their house in Bamon Kampu, Imphal East District around midnight of 11 July 2004. They broke open the door and entered the house. At that time Manorama was sleeping in her room. When the security personnel found her, they dragged her out of her bed and beat up the family members when they tried to stop them. Then they locked the house door from outside and brutally assaulted Manorama after blindfolding her and tying her hands and feet.”
However, it is known from the police records that “around 3:30 a.m. of July 11, the security personnel issued a memo of arrest to the family in which Suresh Kumar (Army no.173355), and Riflemen T.Lotha (Army no.173916) and Ajit Singh (Army no.173491) put their signatures as authority and witnesses. No incriminating documents or articles were found with Manorama at the time of her arrest.” The family said that the army personnel also forced them to sign on some papers that they did not know about. The army personnel told the family that Manorama would be handed over to the Irilbung police in the morning. A report filed at the Irilbung Police Station in the early morning of 11 July 2004 recorded that Manorama was taken by the Assam Rifles personnel.
When Manorama’s body was found, it had no proper clothes on, it bore finger-scratch marks all over the body, and a gashing wound probably made by a knife was found on her right thigh. Several fatal bullet wounds were seen on her back, the upper buttock, and the genitalia. Manorama's family strongly believes that she had been raped and then killed by the army personnel.
A post-mortem on the victim's body was conducted on July 11 at the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences, Imphal, but the victim’s family insisted that it did not follow the guidelines laid down by the National Human Rights Commission. Meanwhile, the official spokesman of 9 Sector Assam Rifles said on 11th July that Manorama was a member of the banned Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) and was shot dead when she tried to flee while leading the Assam Rifles to a PLA hide-out. The spokesman contradicted the memo of arrest given to the victim's mother saying that a wireless radio, a hand grenade and incriminating documents were seized from Manorama at the time of her arrest.
Curfew was imposed in Greater Imphal area, and extended to Bishenpur and Thoubal Districts of Manipur, starting 11:00 a.m. on 15 July 2004 in the wake of widespread public protests defying the curfew that caused street battles between the people and the Manipur police, the Indian Reserve Battalion and the Central Reserve Police Force personnel.
The people, including a large proportion of women, continued to go out into the streets, joining demonstrations on 16th and 17th July. Over 100 people were injured in the police firing at various places including Kongba, Sangakpham, Tera, Uchekon, and some on the outskirts of the state capital. There was complete chaos at the state hospitals unable to provide services to such a huge number of injured people. Many women's organizations took up sit-in public protests all over Greater Imphal and Manipur, defying the indefinite curfew, and calling for the government to punish the perpetrators and to repeal the Armed Forces Special Power Act.
Following this resistance, the Chief Minister of Manipur, Okram Ibobi said on 16th July, that the government would investigate the case and punish the Assam Rifles personnel involved in the killing of Manorama. As a result, Lt. Gen. Daljeet Singh, Corp Commander was summoned by the Chief Minister and instructed to hand over the three persons who had signed the memo of arrest for interrogation. Although the military did not agree with the details of the incident in total, it agreed to cooperate with a judicial inquiry. The perpetrators were suspended until the completion of the judicial inquiry which started on 12th July 2004.
In this context it is also important to note that almost all judicial inquiries ordered in prior cases of arbitrary execution are still pending disposal since the army was not cooperating. The law enforcement agencies in the eastern states in India enjoy the absolute impunity granted by the aforementioned law; their brutality and torture continue unchallenged because of this draconian law. Even though there are some provisions incorporated on the pretext of proper implementation, anyone who questions such acts of torture and brutality is subjected to immediate torture and the perpetrators escape unquestioned.
Law versus outlaws
Had Manorama actually been a PLA militant, was the question is asked by every citizen of India, and the answer obviously is no. Some Assam Rifles officials are quoted as saying that she was shot when she tried to flee on the pretext of the call of nature. It is a rather ‘funny’ explanation that the para-military troops trained to capture terrorists with sophisticated guns could not chase and arrest a woman who was already within the boundary wall of the Army.
As many as 196 people were killed in insurgency-related violence in Manipur. Between January and June 2004, a total of 114 persons have been killed in similar circumstances in Manipur. There is no denying the fact that the violence in Manipur can not go on, that it should be put down with a firm hand, and that the rebels must respond to New Delhi’s repeated offers for peace talks.
One can argue for and against the efficacy of this Black law. It is now high time for us to examine whether application of this tough anti-terror law in Manipur has succeeded in containing insurgency, or whether it has been counterproductive. If the law did not do any good to the people of the state, it should come under reconsideration to be stamped as null and void.
Is it enough to be called justice?
We came to know that the Supreme Court dealt extensively with the provisions of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. The Attorney General of India placed before the apex court in the form of a list of “Dos and Don’ts” that provides amongst others the following instructions:
- before launching any raid/ search, definite information about the activity must be obtained from the local civil authorities
- as far as possible co-opt representative of local civil administration during the raid
- before opening fire against any suspect or person, ascertain that it is essential for maintenance of public order
- to hand over the arrested persons to the nearest police station with least possible delay
- no person be kept under custody for any period longer than the bare necessity for handing over to the nearest police station
- not to use any force after having arrested a person except when he is trying to escape
- not to interrogate the person arrested by the members of the armed force
- to act in closest possible communication with civil authorities
- maintain inter-communication if possible by telephone/ radio
- avoid indiscriminate firing
Considering the above list which is quoted in brief, the Supreme Court in paragraph 58 of the judgment observed that the instructions given by the Army Headquarters have to be treated as binding instructions which are required to be followed by the members of the armed forces exercising powers under the Central Act and a serious note should be taken of any violation of the instructions, and the persons found responsible for such violation should be suitably punished under the Army Act, 1950. In paragraph 61 of the judgment, the Supreme Court says:
“In order that the people may feel assured that there is an effective check against misuse or abuse of powers by the members of the armed forces, it is necessary that a complaint containing an allegation about misuse or abuse of the powers conferred under the Central Act should be thoroughly inquired into and, if it is found that there is substance in the allegation, the victim should be suitably compensated by the State and the requisite sanction under Section 6 of the Central Act should be granted for instruction of prosecution and/or a civil suit or other proceedings against the person/ persons responsible for such violation.”
It sounds highly justifiable that it is a court order to bring the offenders to book. This would restore the faith of the people of the State of Manipur. As a writer from this part of the world, I have an observation that the anti-terror law is such a law that has to be used carefully not only in a hill state of Manipur but it is high time for the global leaders to reconstruct or amend the laws to combat terrorism. Shooting one terrorist should not lead to the birth of two terrorists. Why have the innocent and peace-loving people of Manipur, admiring the wonderful landscape of the Himalayas, turned violent? Is the abuse of anti-terror laws creating new Manoramas, and as an aftermath, are the mothers of Manipur born to cry for justice?
In the campaign against terrorism, governments should not use war powers where law enforcement is possible. Military force might be justified to combat a serious threat from a lawless land, or from a country whose government refuses to cooperate in meeting the threat. But war rules should not apply when there is a reasonable option of arresting and prosecuting a suspect. That is the only way to avoid creating a huge loophole in our human rights and guarantee due judicial process.
It is only too easy to imagine governments worldwide identifying their own enemy combatants when the rules of criminal justice prove inconvenient. It is time to reaffirm that even war powers must be exercised under law – before we find that some of our most fundamental rights have been compromised.
In the case of Manorama, some justice was bargained through the mothers, those who protested naked in truth. But the real justice, one that models the machinery of punishing the evil and rewarding the good is yet to come. Then who is to blame?
Is it the special military act? Then we have to challenge the law-makers. Or the law-abusers. Is it really possible to combat terrorism without a death or a rape or a violation of law? Manorama is dead but there have been hundreds of women like her living dangerously on this beautiful planet. Let us bring them alive to the court of justice and not their dead bodies. If it is followed, then I as a writer, as a dreamer of a world free from terrorism, shall not eye-witness my mothers of Manipur stripped naked again.
While the discussion on Manipur was on, Natasa Durovicova asked me a question, ‘Subodh, what about the fathers of Manipur? Didn’t they do anything to protest?’ This never flashed across my mind while writing the essay; I answered rather half playfully that the fathers of Manipur are traditionally half-naked men as they, like sixty percent of Indian males, can not afford to buy jeans and jackets at the same time. But the real answer is that it would not possibly move the people of the state had the men been seen as standing naked in the streets. Mothers of Manipur were the fire within even while the fathers shouted and demonstrated to bring the state machinery to a stalemate.
I was thrilled and humbled by Tony Eprile as he referred to a similar South African case way back in the 1960s which explored the nakedness as a manifestation of anguish and anger; I was doubly thrilled as Mr. Eprile recited a poem which was written to honor and celebrate the power of nakedness .
While we debated and discussed the German, Burmese, Russian, Algerian, American, Greek, or South African cases, we came to realize that our countries are different with different borders and boundaries under different laws and by-laws, but we are still in quest of justice everywhere in the world. Manorama was raped and murdered brutally by the military, her family fought for justice, but justice has been delayed and delayed. The naked protest was not a part of any court proceedings, but it was a jolt to the entire power structure of the judicial system. Having seen the mothers of Manipur naked in the streets, many eyes were moist with sympathy for the family of Manorama. I think I should feel little less disquiet as the justice which was negotiated outside the court is a justice that has always prevailed on earth. Manorama is now dead but she is now an icon perennially reminding the law-makers to be careful of the abuse of laws. We, the writers of the world, love to fantasize that there is a divine justice, that there is a poetic justice and none of us guilty of a crime can ever escape Nemesis. A poem, a work of art, or a painting can awaken human conscience to an alarming point of protest, as did Guernica of Picasso for Spain, or as did the film ‘Z’ for Greece during the military dictatorship in the late 1960s.
I conclude with a four-liner I wrote in the House of Literature in Paros:
For the IWP Writers
When stone speaks to stone, water speaks to water in Greece
We wait for the night to go
We wait for the sparrow to show
Let us join at breakfast table with none but justice."