An embarrassing affidavit filed by Lieutenant Colonel (Lt. Col.) Dharamvir Singh in the High Court of Manipur has implicated the 57 Mountain Division in the business of stockpiling illegal arms. The saga of Lieutenant Colonel Dharamvir Singh began with his shocking arrest in July 2018 and him blowing the lid off the 3 Counter Insurgency and Surveillance Unit’s (3 CISU) propensity for extrajudicial killings. Now posted to Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh, the Lieutenant Colonel has to face an inquiry regarding the allegations against him in Manipur. However, new revelations thrown up by the recent affidavit only confirm suspicion that people have had regarding the role of the armed forces in Manipur.
In April 2018, news broke of a whistleblowing Naib Subedar of the 30 Assam Rifles in Manipur. He had alleged a series of transactions involving the Assam Rifles and former members of the Meitei armed political groups. According to his allegations, money and guns changed hands under the watchful eye of a special forces team. The Assam Rifles is charged with counter insurgency operations in the Northeast while the Army provides back-up when called.
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In the meantime, the Supreme Court was overseeing a probe into extrajudicial killings in Manipur at the behest of a petition filed by Extrajudicial Execution Victims’ Families Association Manipur (EEVFAM) in 2012. The petitioner organisation had highlighted 1,528 cases of extrajudicial killings in Manipur that required closure. The Supreme Court had initially appointed retired Justice Santosh Hegde to conduct a preliminary inquiry. The retired judge found that each of the few cases he probed required a proper investigation and prosecution. This then led to the establishment of a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) special investigation team (SIT).
The SIT, though criticised for its sluggish progress, has at the same time caused many officers in the armed forces to sit up in alarm. Over 300 officers have petitioned the Supreme Court to not touch the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) as doing so would demoralise the armed forces. It is pertinent to note that whatever the outcome of the present case regarding Manipur, it will have a direct bearing on the conduct of military and paramilitary operations in other theatres of conflict that the Indian State is involved in.
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It was in this particular backdrop that Lt. Col. Dharamvir Singh first made news. He was unceremoniously arrested and detained in July 2018 by the Army authorities from his station at M-sector in Imphal. On the basis of a habeas corpus petition filed by his wife, Lt. Col. Singh was released.
During the time of his detention in Dimapur, a huge cache of illegal arms and ammunition was recovered from M-sector, Imphal. According to The Wire, his advocate argued that as per the Arms Act, a first information report (FIR) ought to be registered upon the recovery of illegal arms. In this case, no FIR was registered. Instead, the Lt. Col. was accused of not only stockpiling illegal arms, but also of harbouring a former member of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and a civilian in the M-sector compound.
Following Lt. Col. Singh’s release, he filed an affidavit in the High Court that 3 CISU had conducted extrajudicial killings and passed them off as encounters. Among the five victims who were mentioned, only one had any link to an armed political group.
The revelations got murkier as a recommendation letter signed by Colonel Shrikumar of the 3 CISU named Captain Rubina Kaur Keer as deserving to be awarded the Sena Medal for eliminating a terrorist ring. However, the names of those allegedly killed in the encounter were those of three men picked up by the 3 CISU for questioning in Dimapur. The bodies were later recovered from the jungles around Karbi Anglong in Assam. At the time the bodies were recovered, the 3 CISU denied any knowledge of them. Considering that Captain Rubina Kaur Keer was awarded the Sena Medal for ‘gallantry’, one would have to wonder whether the armed forces have a stake in prolonging the conflict.