Armed forces

Killer Cop Confessions and the Banality of Evil in Manipur

This sensational but sorry episode is replete with many more ironies. Not the least is Herojit’s appeal to his colleagues in the police to not follow “illegal” orders.

Herojit Singh, self-confessed executioner of the Manipur Police. Credit: PTI

Herojit Singh, self-confessed executioner of the Manipur Police. Credit: PTI

Quite obviously, the last word has not been said on the confession by Manipur Police head constable Thounaojam Herojit that he was the man who shot Chungkham Sanjit, the 22- year-old militant suspect, in the sensational extra-judicial killing of July 23, 2009 at Imphal’s busy Bir Tikendrajit Road.

This is because his confession is not so much a show of remorse for the heinous crime he has committed – (and admittedly he has made many more similar executions in his entire career). Rather, it is an expression of his resentment towards those in the police who gave him his orders but have now abandoned him in the face of an inquisition in which it is becoming certain he would be convicted. From the video recording of his interviews by the media, Herojit comes across as somebody with absolutely no empathy. He presents himself as the perfect professional, doing his duty as best as he could within the confines of the job profile he is given.

The entire episode almost evokes the debate in the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna literally coerces a reluctant Arjuna to pick up his weapons to kill his enemies as a soldier should, without once worrying about the consequences. Herojit too had come to believe the insurgents – actual or suspected – were his enemy, and killing them was his duty.  With robotic compliance, he followed orders to perform actions which were, for the law abiding and human at heart, monstrous.

Herojit is a teetotaller and never needed to intoxicate himself before the contemplated executions. He did not even once make his victims turn around so he could shoot them from the back, instead preferring to kill them while making eye contact so that even in their last moments they were never in any doubt that they were about to die and that it was at his hands.

The picture is as chilling as one of the Grim Ripper himself. It is still more frightful because it is unlikely Herojit is the only executioner in the Manipur Police, or for that matter any other armed law enforcing unit operating in the state. Remember there is an ongoing Supreme Court case on the allegation that there have been over 1500 extra-judicial killings by the police and army in Manipur in the last 30 years.

The entire episode bears moral witness to the barren spiritual landscape that Manipur’s brand of counter-insurgency has brought to this devastated land.

This devastation does not end with hardened killers like Herojit, loyal only to their profession, or at least what they have been told is their professional duty. Nor does it end with their immediate officers who allegedly gave the orders for these illegal executions. The real culprit is the climate of impunity which has descended on Manipur in the decades of an unholy war, where even the thin red line dividing conflicting parties has become ambiguous.

In a way, the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, exemplifies this moral ambiguity. It trivialises murder. The irony is that if AFSPA was applicable to the civil police, perhaps the Manipur Police as an organisation would not have had to abandon executioners like Herojit in the face of prosecution.  Maybe there would have been no need for any inquisition at all given the legal cover AFSPA gives to such perpetrators. Manipur has seen this happen so many times before with the army and other Central forces covered by the AFSPA. Their executioners have continued to do their grim jobs dutifully, as any dissatisfaction or controversy which surfaces quickly dissipates in the face of impunity. That is how the peace of the graveyard in Manipur has remained undisturbed.

The public tendency to laud the rebellion of Herojit is another indicator of the extent to which evil has become banal in the way Hannah Arendt conceived of it.  The decades of legal sanction to killing and brutality had long begun to warp the moral outlook of the place and what is happening now seems like poetic justice in the midst of an extended drought of systemic justice.

This sensational but sorry episode is replete with many more ironies. Not the least is Herojit’s appeal to his colleagues in the police to not follow “illegal” orders. The truth is, if AFSPA was applicable to the civil police, the orders for extra-judicial executions that he was following would not have been “illegal”.

But this anxiety, it must be said, is not new. In fact the Nuremberg principles of 1950, drawn up in the wake of World War II  and the Holocaust, address very much the same thing. The most important of those principles is that following orders to perpetrate atrocities still constitutes a war crime or crime against humanity. In other words, it is not just individual actions but also the laws which sanction these actions which can be illegal. From the perspective of the Nuremberg principles then, even Acts like AFSPA would be illegal.

Interestingly, as Amartya Sen implied in The Argumentative Indian, the spirit of the Nuremberg principles was contained in Arjuna’s initial resistance to Krishna’s “order” to pick up arms and fight. Devotion to duty is fine, but often, it is the nature of the duty which also calls for questioning. The events of the past few days are a wake up call for all to begin such introspections.