Journalist | Writer | Analyst
|August 15, 2004
Opinion – News Analysis
More than just Manorama
By Siddharth Varadarajan
A LESSER man would have become cynical by now but not C. Upendra. An indefatigable casualty of the Indian legal expedient known as the `Commission of Inquiry’, he is now heading his 10th judicial commission — an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the arrest and subsequent death of Manorama Devi.
As he patiently listens to witnesses — and waits for the soldiers who shot Manorama dead to appear before him — this retired Judge of the Gauhati High Court betrays not the slightest trace of doubt about the utility of his enterprise. This though in virtually none of the human rights violation cases he has inquired into in the past has the State or Union Government bothered to follow through on his recommendations.
On March 3, 1996, a group of CRPF jawans opened fire without provocation on a house in Naorem village in Bishnupur district killing a woman, Amina Devi, and injuring her baby daughter, Abem, who was then one year old. Mr. Justice Upendra, who headed the inquiry commission, recommended that the CRPF men be prosecuted under section 302 (murder) and 307 (attempt to murder) under the Indian Penal Code.
“If the persons responsible for indiscriminate fire resulting in the loss of life of innocent people on the mere pretext of self-defence or for apprehending a person… are left scot-free, it would result in anarchy,” Mr. Justice Upendra wrote at the time.
Asked what happened to his recommendation for prosecution in that case, he says he was only informed that the jawans concerned had been posted out of Manipur, “to Kashmir I think.”
When he was a sessions judge, Mr. Justice Upendra was asked by the Gauhati High Court to record the testimony of Naga villagers in and around Oinam village in Senapati district who said they had been tortured and terrorised by the Assam Rifles during Operation Bluebird in 1987. The testimony he collected from 22 witnesses formed part of a writ petition filed by Nandita Haksar and others in the High Court in 1990 alleging severe human rights abuses by the Assam Rifles.
After recording nearly 10,000 pages of evidence, the bench of Justices Bhukan and Shishak reserved their judgment. But before the judgment could be pronounced Justice Bhukan was transferred out and a replacement judge was never named. Justice Shishak has since retired.I went to Bishnupur district to visit Amina Devi’s daughter, Abem, who is now nine. Her father, Sanatomba, married Amina’s younger sister, Thoibi, and the family lives in a village also called Oinam. Abem still carries the scar of a bullet on her back but is otherwise a happy, if shy, girl. She is being educated at Government expense at an English-medium school. Sanatomba received a total compensation package of Rs.75,000 and a Grade IV government job. He has no idea what happened to the CRPF men who killed his wife. “I heard they were transferred but I don’t think they were ever punished,” he says. “We are not satisfied, but what can we do?”
Lawyers say the problem of impunity runs much deeper than the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which technically is meant to cover only the Army and Air Force. Nevertheless, the Assam Rifles, which is a paramilitary force created by a separate Act of Parliament but placed under the operational control of the Army, enjoys full protection under the Act. And other paramilitary forces like the CRPF enjoy de facto protection. Prosecutions are rare and punishments meted out in the few instances that guilt is recognised are rarely publicised, leading to speculation that the sentences are relatively light.
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