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The Manipur reminder


IN LIMBO: Some of the victims of Operation Bluebird;(left) Martyrs' pillar unveiled at Oinam on July 9

It's been 25 years since the village of Oinam in Manipur witnessed the horrors of Operation Bluebird. But justice still eludes them.

Some events are hard to forget. This week, many villagers in Oinam in Senapati district in Manipur were silently reliving the horrific events of July 9, 1987 when the Assam Rifles' 29th battalion unleashed terror on the village.
It was 25 years ago on this day that rebels of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) raided a post of the Assam Rifles' 29th battalion at Oinam Hill Village. The rebels killed nine soldiers and decamped with a huge haul of arms and ammunition. The Assam Rifles, where officers from the army are deputed on short tenures, launched 'Operation Bluebird' two days later to catch the rebels and recover the looted arms. But the soldiers allegedly turned their wrath on innocent villagers of Oinam and 30 surrounding villages.

According to N Sekho, the headman of Oinam who says he was present during this event and was tortured by the soldiers, the Assam Rifles completely surrounded the villages and made the entire area a 'no-go zone' for even the state's civilian administration. "In the name of recovering the looted weapons and tracing the rebels, the men in uniform started raiding the villages almost on a daily basis, picking up people at will, illegally detaining them for months in makeshift torture camps set up in the villages, killing 27 in false encounters, desecrating churches and torching, damaging or dismantling houses and public buildings like schools, raping and molesting women and compelling them into forced labour, " says Sekho.

Outraged, the then chief minister of Manipur, Rishang Keishing, wrote to Union home minister Buta Singh: "The Civil Law has, unfortunately, ceased to operate in Senapati District, Manipur, due to excesses committed by the Assam Rifles with complete disregard shown to the Civil Administration. The Assam Rifles are running the parallel administration in the area. The Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police were wrongfully confined, humiliated and prevented from discharging their official duties by the security forces".

Keishing sent a cabinet memorandum to the Union government detailing the killings and torture of villagers by the Assam Rifles and met Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to plead with him to end the brutalities. But Keishing says that instead of his complaint acting as a deterrent, it further enraged the Assam Rifles as its officers tried to implicate the chief minister, some ministers, MLAs and MPs in false cases by forcing villagers to sign statements stating that the politicians were in cahoots with rebels and indulging in 'anti-national' activities!

Later, in October, the victims of the Oinam massacre filed petitions against men and officers of the Assam Rifles before the Gauhati High Court. This was perhaps the first time that victims of human rights abuse by security forces in India took their oppressors to court. The perfidy at Oinam made headlines around the world, making it again the first time that human rights abuses by security forces in India caught world attention. And Amnesty International's 73-page report on the shocking incidents that commenced in July and went on till December that year was also the first time that an international human rights body had reported on human rights violations by armed forces in India. Even the UN Committee on Human Rights took note of Amnesty's report and urged India to take action.

Keishing's letter to Buta Singh and other related communication are documented in Amnesty's report as well as another compiled by the Naga Peoples' Movement For Human Rights (NPMHR), which filed a comprehensive petition before the Gauhati high court in October 1987. In July 1988, the high court asked the sessions court at Manipur's capital Imphal to record the testimonies of the villagers.

In retaliation, says K Paul, the spokesperson of the NPMHR, soldiers and officers of the Assam Rifles threatened the villagers with dire consequences if they spoke out and forced all the 30 villages to issue statements stating that the allegations of rape, killings, torture and human rights abuses against the force were untrue. But 22 villagers, who had either been tortured or witnessed it, defied the Assam Rifles diktat and testified before the session judge at Imphal, who was later allegedly harassed.
The judge completed recording of evidence in April 1990 and turned it all over to the high court, which appointed two of its judges in 1992 for the final hearings on the case. But one of the judges was transferred after recording thousands of pages of arguments from both sides and, till now, no judge has been appointed in his place, nor has any date been set for the final hearing of the case.

The victims of 1987 are still waiting for justice. That is why every year on July 9 they gather and give each other strength and pray for closure.

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