Unlawful Law: The Thangjam Manorama Case

This short commentary is a re-thinking of the final verdict of the Case of Col. Jagmohan Singh And Ors. vs The State Of Manipur And Ors.1, more popularly known as the Thangjam Manorama case. Due to the prominence of the case, I have not recounted it here. The ghastly nature of the way the body of Manorama bears witness to torture led to the historic naked protests by the mothers of Manipur in front of the Kangla Fort in 2004. The protest has since occupied the imagination of many activists and lay people across the country and outside. A petition was filed by the 17th Battalion Assam Rifles on 12th July, 2004, challenging the Commission of Inquiry constituted by the Government of Manipur in the wake of the protests. The petition puts into question the competence of the Government of a State to appoint a Commission of Inquiry into what is deemed a matter for the Army Court of Inquiry. This commentary attempts to read the case through the lens of violence against women (VAW). If the state itself is the perpetrator of sexualised violence against (especially marginalised) women what are the possible ways to counter this and seek justice? The case due to these reasons is of a distinct nature within the VAW discussions. The petition filed is against the state of Manipur, the state standing in for the collective conscience of the people which has been offended by the rape and murder of Th. Manorama. The accused are part of the paramilitary forces called in aid of Civil Power in Manipur under the ambit of a law called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (henceforth AFSPA). The petition, not surprisingly, has exposed the reluctance of the Army to subject itself to scrutiny for its action especially in places declared a disturbed area wherein they function with impunity shielded by the Act against all legal instruments. The Commission of Judicial Inquiry which the writ petition challenges is popularly known as the Upendra Commission or the Manorama Death Inquiry Commission. The particulars of the case, along with the nature of protests in its aftermath, evoked immense public interest. The injuries and mutilation suffered in the person of Manorama had led to a public outcry culminating into the protest by twelve ema(s) (mothers) who disrobed themselves in front of the Assam Rifles Headquarters at Kangla, Imphal on 15th July, 2004 with banners that read ‘Indian Army Rape Us’. The overwhelming outrage culminated into the Assam Rifles vacating the Kangla Fort; this being one of the demands of the agitators. The more important key demand of withdrawal of AFSPA remains to be addressed till date.

Insurgent, Racial Others and the figure of the Woman:

AFSPA as a law is applied to specific peripheral states deemed as ‘disturbed areas’ of India, the nature of its application leading to questions of racialised relationship between the states where it is applied and the Indian ‘mainland’. In 2017 there were demands and an equally vociferous resistance on the discussion of the possible application of AFSPA in Chhattisgarh. The ensuing discussions were keenly followed by many in Manipur, unfortunately it more than ever confirming the long-held ideas that they are indeed peripheral to the idea and imagination of India. The determined voices stating that the army should not be used against one’s own people in Central India reverberates in a different way in the periphery, thereby, bringing to question the figure of the citizen-subject in Manipur. Security officials had insisted on Thangjam Manorama Devi being a dangerous overground worker of the People’s Liberation Army responsible for a number of bomb blasts. However, in a place of swift extrajudicial execution truth sometimes circulates as rumour and lies as an official statement of facts. There has been no police complaint filed against Manorama; therefore, she has had no opportunity in her lifetime to be either declared guilty or innocent in a court of law. Death cannot testify for itself. Her corpse was found, bullet-ridden, at Yairipok Maring Village. The family members had at the time of the arrest (as claimed by the Assam Rifles) signed a ‘No Claims Certificate’. 

Troops of Assam Rifles apprehended Th. Manorama Devi from her house at 3:30 a.m. on 11th July, 2004 and searched the house in presence of family members and that we don’t have any claim against them and it is further stated that Security Forces personnel have not misbehaved with women folk or damaged any property2(emphasis mine).

The question remains whether such a certificate could be taken as evidentiary and be trusted in its fidelity to the events that ensued on the intervening night of 10th and 11th of July, 2004. The joint representation by family and locality members on 12th of July 2004 alleged the aforementioned ‘No Claims Certificate’ had been signed at gunpoint.  Reading between the lines of this no claims certificate, in its mention of the troops having not misbehaved with womenfolk (in the plural) already points to the potential and possibility of its occurrence not only in this particular event but in any such occurrence that is safely ensconced in the ambit of AFSPA. This is a spectacular claim considering the prevalence of sexual violence of women in custody. How much more violence can both men and women be subjected to if the perpetrators are given legal immunity is not merely a speculation. A news item on June 27, 2020 puts the figure of custodial deaths in 2019 in India as 1,7313. While the said case is not of death in police custody but rather in army custody, the statistics can only be assumed to be much more, considering that in January 2013 a PIL was filed listing 1,528 victims of AFSPA in Manipur. The deaths can be categorized as either custodial deaths or fake encounters similar to the case of Th. Manorama. 

The figure of the racialised, othered, marginal and exoticized woman in the Indian context has always been available as a subject constructed as a lack — lacking dignity in her person and therefore available for sexual violence. The sexual violence that the marginalised are subjected to is usually not construed as violence in the first place because sexual violence is overwhelmingly a discourse of dignity and honour that overlooks bodily harm. What is misbehaviour, therefore? Th. Manorama was, in the report filed by the brother, gagged by a cloth, water poured on her face, disrobed (she was clutching her phanek4 with her hands), her face was swollen, she was made to change her clothes in front of the army personnel and had to go to the toilet in the presence of 2-3 personnel. These sets of actions are not deemed misbehaviour, especially for a woman already constructed as dangerous terrorists. While the alleged identity of Manorama should not have any bearing on the case, the very fact that this rumour is circulated post her death and found its way to most of the written corpus of work on this issue — news items, academic articles etc. suggest the potential of this rumour to change attitudes towards Manorama at least in the mainstream media where (they hope) she will occupy the figure of the insurgent woman who should be done away with in whatever manner possible. Thus, security officials stick to this hearsay without any supporting evidence being given except for ‘According to the Assam Rifles, “one Singapore made Kenwood Radio Set and one Chinese made fragmentation Type Hand Grenade” were found in Manorama’s house. However, Manorama’s brother Dolendro Singh said that he had not seen anything being recovered.’ Post-mortal planting of evidence too is an altogether common practice. 

Procedural Lapses and the ‘Arrest’ an Alleged UG5  

The problem of AFSPA should not be read in the letter of the law alone. The reverberation of AFSPA is far reaching. The impunity that the law allows for not only impacts the actions of the army but the police whom the army most often team up with as ‘combined forces’; the impunity also engenders a system wherein procedural lapses become part of the procedure. In this case Justice D. Biswas of the Gauhati High Court … noted in his final verdict: 

It is evident that the raid was conducted without presence of a lady constable; though the house was cordoned off, no attempt was made to contact the Superintendent of Police to provide the services of a lady constable; the arrested person was not handed over to the nearest police station; she was interrogated after arrest and moved from place to place in search of another lady cadre and there was no FIR [First Information Report] pending against Km Th. Manorama Devi at the time of her arrest.6 

The admission of the arresting party that Manorama’s hands were tied in custody and the information from the side of the family members that she was wearing a phanek at the time of her arrest brings into question the version (in the legal petition of the Assam Rifles) that claimed she had to be fired upon because of her attempt to flee. The visceral testimony provided by her body — no blood at the scene in spite of six bullet wounds including in her genitals, the torture on the body and the semen stains on her phanek7  suggest that procedural lapses have been at the heart of this law because of the impunity it provides for, for the fact is that citizen-subjects in disturbed areas are all deemed potential insurgents unless proven otherwise.  The body of evidence is usually provided for only after death. The question of procedural lapses therefore should be read along with the context of the law.  

Army sources have told Tehelka that Commanding Officers of various Assam Rifles battalions deployed in Manipur are under tremendous pressure from their superiors to show quick results. And to get more ‘body-count’. ‘This is resulting in battalions overlapping each other’s jurisdiction,’ says intelligence sources. As a result, picking up an innocent from one locality and showing him or her as a suspected militant in a different area has become the norm8 .

The above paragraph raises more questions — What does quick result mean? Is ‘body-count’ an evidence of quick results? Are marks of torture an evidence of a tough stance against insurgency? What does all these mean for the construction of a citizen-subject living in ‘disturbed areas’? Are all Manipuris insurgents unless proven otherwise? The above points to the law as one among a spectrum of well-planned actions that is a manifestation of not only the provisions of AFSPA (wherein — security forces have the right to search any premise without prior warrant, can detain a person on the mere basis of suspicion, arrest without warrant and can kill without consequence) but also a general stereotype propagated to discipline what they label as ‘suspicious’ ‘miscreants’. The arrest memo itself is an improvisation that came after campaigns for the same. Not that this procedural intervention has helped much in this case except as an acknowledgement that indeed the discarded corpse of Manorama can be traced to the actions of the paramilitary forces. In the face of absolute power and impunity, procedural intervention can become rituals. 

Re-Writing Judgement and the Predicament of Justice  

One of the peculiarities of the case is that the state is being approached for justice in a case where the state is the perpetrator. The Commission of Inquiry (instituted by the Manipur government) instructed the Director General of Police (DGP) to execute a warrant against personnels for failure to appear before the commission. To this, the Assam Rifles’ petitioned that since they operate under AFSPA the Act already ‘provides under section 6 that “[n]o prosecution, suit or other legal proceedings shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government, against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by this Act.9’ From this clause the Assam Rifles also claimed the mandate of the Commission null and void. On the one hand, the counsel for the Assam Rifles claimed the redundancy of the Commission of Inquiry as the army court of inquiry was looking into the matter. On the other hand, the counsel for the state of Manipur submitted that since ‘public order’ is a state subject, the constitution of the commission is within the jurisdiction of the state. Since the argument of the state government is premised on the maintenance of public order it brings to mind the function of the various protests ignited by the incident, including what became known as the ‘Naked Protest’ of the mothers and the self-immolation of Pebam Chittaranjan, a young student in the wake of the protest. Corollary to this understanding is also that, had the people not erupted with such anger, had this case been not exceptional in the degree to which Manorama’s body bear witness to the torture that she was subjected to or the travesty of justice had been to the extent that the doctors who conducted the autopsy testified before the commission their inability to conclusively report whether she was raped or not? Had not the mothers been propelled to disrobe themselves in public with the banner ‘Indian Army Rape Us’, inciting series of protests and collective outrage, the legislative competence of the state to maintain ‘public order’ could not have been one of the primary arguments on which the exercise of powers of the state could be claimed. In any case the verdict rejects the right of the state and maintains exclusive power to the Union government especially in the light of allegations of excesses committed by the 17th Assam Rifles. The fact of the matter is that women everywhere have to deal with ‘bureaucratic time’ when approaching the police and the judiciary, the routinised delay built into the process as well as the reluctance to acknowledge or pursue such cases of sexual violence and assault dull the edges of any hope for justice. However, the specific subjugation of women within the ambit of this law is profound. Yet, strangely, the political immediacy of the repeal of the Act has not reverberated across feminist circles in the nation state once again laying bare that the political imagination seem to coincide with the geo-political boundary, and Acts that are formulated as ‘necessary to the security of the nation state’ for the most part has the tacit support of the general populace. What is to be read from the verdict is that the very Act precludes the possibility of justice; it is not for nothing that the Act, for the people in disturbed areas, is synonymous with impunity. The language of rights should not preclude an alleged member of banned outfits and racialized others deemed by the Act as already suspicious citizens by virtue of residence in ‘disturbed areas.’ In the tussle between the authority of the state government and the federal government and the judiciary, the only casualty has been the rights of citizens; compelling one to conclude that the legal status accorded in the Act translates as denial of the constitutional right to life for the ‘lesser’ citizens of the country.

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