11 August 2004
Assam Rifles men fail to turn up
By Siddharth Varadarajan
IMPHAL, AUG. 10. The Manmohan Singh Government may insist that the Army is "fully cooperating" with investigations into last month's custodial killing of Manorama Devi but the Assam Rifles men involved are refusing to testify before the official Commission probing the incident.
After the Commanding Officer of 17 Assam Rifles, Colonel Jagmohan Singh, and four soldiers known to be present during Manorama's arrest failed to appear before the Commission today, the third day running, Justice C. Upendra, who is heading the inquiry, issued a sternly-worded summons warning each soldier that "if you fail without just excuse, neglect or refuse to appear before the Commission (on Wednesday), coercive measures will be taken to compel your appearance."
The failure of the Assam Rifles men to depose has underlined a curious, almost Kafkaesque, paradox about the situation in Manipur. In a submission, which Mr. Justice Upendra had rejected in early August, the Assam Rifles had said that it was not safe for its soldiers to come and testify in an open court because of the threat posed by insurgents. The insurgents have already put a price on the soldiers' heads. But it is precisely because of the threat posed by insurgents that the Assam
Rifles are in Manipur in the first place. And, they have the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which ordinary Manipuris, agitated over Manorama's killing, now want revoked.
The Assam Rifles headquarters at Kangla fort is just 50 metres from the State Guest House, where the inquiry is being held. "If despite the AFSPA, it is too dangerous for them to cross the road, then they have no business being here," a lawyer involved in the case said. "In Jharkhand, the warrant of a district judge is enough to send a Union Minister like Shibu Soren to prison," said Th. Kishan, a lecturer in English at Imphal's prestigious D.M. College. "But here, under the AFSPA, even a Havildar in the Army cannot be compelled to testify."
Despite repeated requests, Brigadier Pillai, seniormost Assam Rifles officer in Imphal, declined to grant an interview to The Hindu.
In its latest summons, the Upendra Commission has also asked for the names of the Assam Rifles personnel who took part in the operation to arrest Manorama and transport her to the spot from where she allegedly tried to flee and was gunned down, the arms and ammunition registers showing the entries for July 10 and 11 and the registration numbers of the vehicles used. "We have been asking for this information from the start but the Army is simply not cooperating," sources in the Commission told The Hindu today.
So far 23 witnesses had deposed before the Commission, constituted by the Manipur Government immediately after the killing of Manorama. Except for the period between July 24 and August 6, the Commission sources said, the Assam Rifles had been evasive. First, they refused to accept any communication, asking that the summons, delivered at Kangla Fort, be sent to another post at Keithelmanbi. There, the Commission staff were asked to send the summons to 99 APO. It was only after Mr. Justice Upendra telephoned the Commanding Officer and asked, "Is this cooperation or non-cooperation," that the first summons was accepted. But when the Assam Rifles brass realised the Commission was serious about deposing and cross-examining the soldiers involved, cooperation stopped.
Explaining why cross-examination of the soldiers was crucial, the Commission sources said that there was a major discrepancy between the arrest memo, handed over to Manorama's family the night she was arrested, and the seizure memo, which the Army has since handed in to the Commission.
"The arrest memo records `nil' in the space where weapons recovered are to be mentioned. How come the seizure memo then says that all kinds of arms were recovered from her," they asked. And then, given the nature of bullet injuries sustained, a large amount of blood should have been present at the place where she died. "But there were no bloodstains there." Besides this, lawyers from Manorama's side should also have the right to question the Army's version of events, the sources said.
This is, incidentally, the 10th commission of inquiry into security forces excesses that Mr. Justice Upendra will be conducting. Asked how many prosecutions had resulted from the judge's earlier labours, the sources said they did not know.
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