New Delhi: In January of 2016, police commando Thounaojam Herojit made a confession in the Imphal Free Press that he had shot dead an unarmed young man in Manipur’s central market.
In July the same year, in a report in the Guardian, Herojit confided that it was not just one man he had killed – it was well over a hundred.
Herojit insisted that he had always acted on orders from superior officers, and now wanted to reveal the truth about the larger system that authorised the executions.
Security forces in Manipur have been accused of routinely staging armed encounters to eliminate both suspected militants and civilians. The practice allegedly peaked in 2008-’09, when the onus of the counter-insurgency had been shifted to state police. The government has denied that executions take place, and provides broad immunity to security personnel for deaths that occur.
Herojit’s shocking confession came just as a new challenge was being mounted against state impunity in Manipur. The Extrajudicial Execution Victims’ Families Association of Manipur, or EEVFAM – a group that Babloo Loitongbam helped convene – had petitioned the court to investigate 1,528 cases of fake encounters it claimed to have documented.
On July 11, 2016 an interim order by the Supreme Court bench reiterated that any case of ‘excessive force resulting in death’ required criminal proceedings against the offenders – regardless of whether they were separately disciplined or court martialled by the police force or army.
‘If members of our armed forces are deployed and employed to kill citizens of our country on the mere allegation or suspicion that they are the “enemy”, not only the rule of law, but our democracy would be in grave danger,’ the order observed. ‘It does not matter whether the victim was a common person or a militant or a terrorist… The law is the same for both and is equally applicable to both.’
In February 2017, a team from the Central Bureau of Investigation returned to Imphal to reopen the case and examine Herojit’s allegation that his orders to kill Sanjit Meitei in 2009 came down the chain of command from senior officers.
In July 2017, the Supreme Court ordered a probe by a special investigating team (SIT) into the 98 encounter killings in Manipur in the last decade. It asked the CBI to complete the investigations by December 31, 2017, and prepare chargesheets.
Filmmaker Vikram Singh and The Wire’s editor-at-large Raghu Karnad travelled to Imphal to meet Herojit and revisit his story in his own words. They also spoke to the mother of his final victim, and to Yumnam Joykumar – the former Director-General of Police in Manipur, held responsible for the spike in encounters – who is now deputy chief minister in Manipur’s BJP government.