HINDUSTAN TIMES SERIES ON AFSPA

Manipur’s horror:
When Operation Bluebird struck terror

Rahul Karmakar, Hindustan Times  Senapati, November 05, 2014

Pius Varay ducks instinctively whenever a child pops an empty Tetra Pak carton or a motorcycle misfires. The sound is a traumatic reminder of soldiers firing in his village of Oinam in Manipur 27 years ago.
The 36-year-old Varay may be the youngest survivor of Operation Bluebird, a brutal counter-insurgency operation launched by paramilitary soldiers in July 1987, but the scars still remain.

According to an Amnesty International report, many men were maimed, tortured and women raped between July and October 1987 after the military launched the operation following an attack by National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) rebels on Assam Rifles’ Oinam outpost. The rebels killed nine soldiers and escaped with 150 guns and 125,000 rounds of ammunition.

Operation Bluebird was ostensibly aimed at catching the rebels and recovering the firearms. But activists say the soldiers ended up exacting revenge on the innocent people of Oinam and 35 surrounding villages for more than three months. The villagers were also forced to make food for the soldiers for 65 days until they exhausted their granaries.

As a nine-year-old student of Oinam Government High School, Pius was spared the torture of what activists call the “Holocaust” of India. But security forces made him talk because he was among those the rebels ordered to carry the stolen guns to a forest hideout.

“Most of us sang, but the rebels shifted before the Assam Rifles located their camp. The officers just did not believe we could cover the distance across a harsh terrain and return home in a night. We had it bad both ways,” Pius says.

Nearly three decades on, many people in Oinam are still struggling to cope with the trauma of one of the darkest episodes in the revolt-hit state’s history.  Several villages were turned into virtual prisons during this period as security forces, armed with the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958, allegedly unleashed a reign of terror in the area.

Human rights activist Irom Sharmila has been on indefinite fast for 14 years to demand the repeal of the archaic law, which gives security forces wide powers to shoot-at-sight, search and detain anyone suspected to be involved in the armed revolt in Manipur. The military says the law is necessary for it to tackle insurgency.

Church deacon Ngaoni Shangne, now 94, says the Amnesty report understates what happened in Oinam in Senapati district, 95km north of the state capital Imphal. The village was hit by the Japanese invasion during World War 2 and Shangne, who the Japanese used as a porter, thought the worst was over when the war ended.

He was wrong. He recalls the second horror saying, “We were made to carry 50-kg loads from one village to the other without food or water. Some men were hung upside down and thrashed while women were buried up to their necks. Pregnant women, kicked and abused, were made to deliver in the field as the soldiers watched.”

Some village headmen were blindfolded and executed with their hands tied behind their backs. Naga rights groups put the number of deaths at 27 but the official figure was 15.

Oinam was made out of bounds for local authorities too. Manipur chief minister Rishang Keishing wrote of how excesses committed by Assam Rifles paralysed the civil administration in a September 1987 letter to Union home minister Buta Singh. “The deputy commissioner and the superintendent of police were wrongfully confined, humiliated and prevented from discharging their official duties by the security forces,” he said.

The legal fight to bring the Assam Rifles personnel to book ended in March 1992 without the final hearing. One of the judges was transferred after recording thousands of pages of arguments from the petitioners and Assam Rifles. He has not been replaced, nor has the date of the next hearing been set in these 27 years.

“If this country cannot provide justice, God will,” says 57-year-old Bluebird survivor Shangvao Rong. “They (the soldiers) will die too, hopefully not like the way they made our brothers and sisters die.”

Death scored thirteen:
Why Irom’s fight against AFSPA is in 15th year

Rahul Karmakar and Sobhapati Samom, Hindustan Times Imphal, November 05, 2014

Elangbam Amul slaughters chicken for a living. He attacks the fowl as if he has a score to settle. Maybe he sees his father’s killers in those broilers, his childhood friends say.

The past for Amul, 39, is a blank. But everyone else at Heirangoithong on the outskirts of Imphal remembers what happened to his father, Elangbam Laljit, on March 14, 1984.

That afternoon, CRPF personnel emptied their guns on some 3,000 civilians watching a match at a local volleyball ground. The shooters were aware that members of other forces — Manipur Police and Border Security Force — were playing the final of a premier volleyball tournament.

The panic-stricken spectators were virtually trapped. The ground was flanked by an elevated road to the west, the river Nambul flowing along a gorge to the east, the local youth club building to the south and a bridge across the river to the north.

The CRPF, a probe panel said later, fired randomly at the locals to avenge the death of a colleague. A group of militants had earlier snatched the rifles of nine constables standing guard near the volleyball court and shot the tenth before melting away.

Laljit, a state secretariat employee, had son Amul on his lap as he sat on the roadside gallery that sloped down to the volleyball court. He caught a volley of bullets that brought the match to an abrupt end, but ensured his son was safe.

“Three bullets hit me on the legs and right hip. Before passing out on two tiers of bodies, I saw Amul screaming two-three feet away, his face splattered with his father’s blood,” Kshetrimayum Ojit, a mason who was 17 then, says.

When he came to in the hospital that evening, Ojit discovered he was one of 31 wounded, some never to walk properly again. Laljit was among 13 dead, including 10-year-old Soibam Dhanabati who shielded a younger boy to earn a bravery award posthumously.

“Heirangoithong is a classic case of how the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 gives security forces the licence to kill and how, besides taking the lives of innocents, it shatters the survivors and traumatises scores like Amul,” Imphal-based human rights activist Babloo Loitongbam says.

Activist Irom Sharmila, known as the Iron Lady of Manipur, has been on hunger strike for the last 14 years to demand the repeal of the controversial law which gives security forces sweeping power to shoot-at-sight anybody suspected of being involved in the insurgency in Manipur.

Amul — it was fashionable in Manipur then to name a healthy child after the Gujarat-based milk products brand — was never the same again. The incident erased his memory and his ability to study.

He works at a chicken shop where the money isn’t much. But, locals say, it is more honourable than the `2.5 lakh the family of each massacre victim and `1 lakh every injured received as compensation 25 years later.
“We fought for more but this is how the government values lives,” Ng Premkumar, who fought the case, says.
Kongkham Nipamacha, 68, secretary of an organisation that observes a memorial function at the massacre site, had taken voluntary retirement from the BSF before that fateful day.

“As a weapons training instructor, I knew the CRPF personnel used poison-tipped Yugoslav bullets. Justice will be done only if the lead actors in Manipur’s Jallianwala (Punjab, 1919) are punished,” he says.
For the moment, locals want the government to prevent the volleyball court from being turned into a community hall and restore Heirangoithong as the nerve-centre of volleyball.

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