On Monday the Imphal Free Press (IFP) broke an exclusive story. A Naib Subedar of the 30th Assam Rifles (AR), Ramesh Chand Sharma revealed how the security forces (SF) in Manipur procured unregistered weapons which then are used in fake encounters and staged surrenders. Both fake encounters and staged surrenders are subject to a lot of debate, particularly in Manipur. The SFs in Manipur have long been accused of these very indiscretions that have damaged too many families and society in particular. The underground organisations routinely deny knowledge of any of their cadres named in surrender ceremonies. On the other hand, the SFs still need to show progress in the counterinsurgency operations.
Under the garb of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) the SFs have been given a free run in managing counterinsurgency operations. Of late however, the strategy seems to have gone from 'iron fist' to 'hearts and minds', this can be seen in the blood donation camps, providing electricity, as well as building toilets. However, side by side the dark underbelly remains, awards need to be won by someone. The Wire has extensively covered the confession of Herojit Singh, a former Manipur Police Commando and an 'encounter specialist'. He confessed to having killed around a 100 people on the orders of his superior officers, one of whom is a part of the present government in Manipur. His confession has been criticised by some quarters in Manipur who feel that his confessions came only after he realised he would be sacrificed to the Supreme Court's SIT. Irrespective of these intricacies, the fact is that since 1979 there have been 1,528 reported 'fake encounters' in Manipur alone – one can only wonder about other places where AFSPA is in force. Extra-Judicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM) has been tasked with assisting the Court appointed SIT to submit the cases of fake encounters. At present the Court is considering 655 cases out of the 1,528.
The other issue however, concerns the staged surrenders. The SFs have time and again used these, more as a means to gain awards rather than their true purpose – causing a psychological blow to the insurgency. In 2017 one day before independence day, 68 alleged militants surrendered in a grand ceremony. All they had to show were a paltry haul of arms. In 2013 a staged surrender was exposed where 60 civilians were lured into an AR camp on the pretext of employment. Thus, there is obviously a problem here. If the government were to penalise the officers they would implicitly be admitting that the surrenders were staged, on the other hand when exposed, they expose themselves to ridicule.
Naib Subedar Sharma revealed how he had been party to procuring weapons for these purposes. He told the IFP that in 2013 a call came to his camp that a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) should be sent to the Company Headquarters. Upon reaching his destination he was met by Ved Pal Yadav (who won the Sena Medal) along with other officers. They handed him Rs. 3 lakh and instructed him to make his way to another camp and hand over the money to the person who would meet him there. Sharma was accompanied by a special forces team from this point. At the camp he met a former member of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) who was working in the camp as a cook. He handed the money over to the former militant. They then picked up other former militants from other locations. Finally, they arrived at a camp where the former militants met the Company Commander of another AR Company. The Commander took the former militants into his office while the special forces team and Sharma had a late lunch. The Commander then returned with two pistols and a lathod gun. He instructed Sharma to take the arms back to his camp after dropping the former militants off.
Sharma told the IFP that he has made copies of all the original documents that his Commanding Officer destroyed. In this regard he also stated that his only wish is to expose unsavoury dealings. Deals struck by officers and former militants to procure arms for stage encounters and surrenders. He alleged that the armoury in his former camp had more than the three guns he returned with.
Considering the history of counterinsurgency operations in Manipur, there is little doubt that something of this nature was going on, after all where there is smoke there is fire. Persons associated with the State have in the past been caught smuggling drugs in Manipur. It is ironic that gun running is another business venture that has been invested in. In this scenario, Manipur does not need militants or gangs to run these rackets, the SFs seem quite capable on their own.