Assam Rifles major accused of killing civilian in Manipur; reopens debate on AFSPA

An Indian paramilitary soldier stands guard in Manipur in August 2004. On 4 June this year, Alok Sathe, the commanding officer of the E Company of the 44 Assam Rifles posted at Kangpoki’s Banglabung outpost, shot and killed 29-year-old Mangboilal Lhouvum, a father of four, according to locals. Jayanta Shaw / Reuters
10 July, 2021

Almost one month after a major of the Indian Army’s 44 Assam Rifles company was accused of killing a civilian resident of the Chalwa village, in Manipur’s Kangpokpi district, the terms of a compromise agreement—including compensation to the victim’s family—are yet to be fulfilled. On 4 June, Alok Sathe, the commanding officer of the E Company of the 44 Assam Rifles posted at Kangpoki’s Banglabung outpost, shot and killed 29-year-old Mangboilal Lhouvum, a father of four, according to locals. The Assam Rifles has claimed that the incident took place during an anti-insurgency operation to capture members of the insurgent group Kuki Revolutionary Army, and that it has ordered an inquiry into the matter. But according to Mangboilal’s family, local residents and civil-society organisations, there were no KRA members or insurgent activities at Chalwa, and the incident was yet another instance of abuse of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the state. 

Six days after Mangboilal’s death, I spoke to his wife, Neikhochong, over a video call. She looked at the ground as she spoke, softly, with long gaps in between sentences. “It is a very difficult situation for me,” she said. “I am wondering how I will bring up these four kids. I am still in a state of shock.” Their eldest daughter is seven years old and studies in kindergarten in a local government school. The three younger children are aged six, three and one, respectively. During the call, the youngest child was crying in the background, while another watched me with curiosity. The four children and their mother lived in a two-room thatched house, with one room serving as a living room, kitchen and dining area, and the other one as their bedroom.

Mangboilal worked as a handyman and earned approximately Rs 300 per day. He was the only earning member of the family. Neikhochong described him as “a hardworking person, a quiet man who liked to keep to himself.” With her eyes still on the ground, she added in a low voice, “I want justice for my husband’s death.”

The exact circumstances leading up to Mangboilal’s death remain unclear. According to a release issued by the Press Information Bureau Defence Wing two days later, on 6 June, the Indian Army’s company, led by the major Sathe, had launched an operation in Chalwa “based on specific intelligence” about the presence of members of the Kuki Revolutionary Army in the village. The Kukis are a tribal community in Manipur who have long sought greater political power in the state. A resident of a nearby village, who is a member of the Kuki Students’ Organisation and a former member of the Indian Army, spoke to me about the incident on the condition of anonymity. “The insurgent was not there that night,” the former serviceman said. “He comes once in a while. If he was there, we would know. They looked for him but since they could not find him, they started quarreling with some locals … The army was drunk and while they were looking around, they made a mistake.”

This account was corroborated by Enock, the president of the Tuilang block of the Kuki Students’ Organisation, a unit that covers the Chalwa village. The block president said that he was informed of the incident by his colleague in the KSO immediately after the incident. “On the 4th of June, around 9 pm right after the incident, the Chalwa secretary called me and said we heard some gunshots—maybe around 7 to 8 gunshots were heard,” Enock told me. He said Mangboilal was shot during this firing, and rushed into a nearby house where he was later found with his intestines spilling out of his body. “The incident happened around 8.30–9,” he said. “After the incident, Mangboilal ran into one family house. After hearing gunshots, villagers started gathering—it may take ten twenty minutes for that. After that, the village secretary called me up. So even in between that after the gunshot maybe the army personnel must have run away and left the spot.”

Upon receiving the call from KSO’s village secretary, Enock began getting ready to leave for Chalwa from his native village of T Waichong, located around 11 kilometres away. Soon after, he said, he received a call from Sathe asking him what had happened. “He asked me, ‘Kya hua he Chalwa mein?’”—What happened in Chalwa. “And I told him, ‘Alok bahut galti kiya’”—Alok, you’ve made a huge mistake. “‘Mujhe to kuch pata nahi he’”—I don’t know anything—“something like that he started saying, trying to justify himself, and then after that he said, ‘I will call you back again.’ That was the last call.” 

According to Enock, the E Company of the 44 Assam Rifles, which headed by Sathe and posted at Banglabung, is the only post of the Assam Rifles in the area because “there is no insurgency at all here, just one two extortion would be there.” He said the camp was set up in the area in September 2020, and that the KSO has been “doing a lot of social work” with the 44 Assam Rifles company. “They used to come in my house also, we used to visit together in civilian clothes only. They have a good relationship with the public. There is no insurgency activity in Chalwa at all.” The former serviceman, too, spoke about how the Assam Rifles company had good relations with the locals before the incident. “We helped each other when the Assam Rifles took various initiatives in the area,” he said. “As an ex-serviceman, I knew the language and I used to help them out.”

When asked why Sathe would have called him, Enock said, “He knew that I am a social leader and we were on good terms, so he was just trying to maintain a good relation. I told him, ‘You have done a great blunder, why did you do this?’” Enock said he had already been told that Sathe was responsible because Mangboilal had said so to the local residents.

“Then after that, we went down” to Chalwa, Enock continued. “By the time I reached there, the mobs were already there and they started burning the fencing and even the waiting shelter” around the 44 Assam Rifles outpost, he said. “In the midst, Mr Alok was standing and he was trying to justify himself saying that he was not the one who shot. But you must have also seen in videos that even small, small boys were accusing him. Alok was very popular major in the area right after the camp came, we worked hand in hand, we worked together.”

Thangtinlen Haokip, the general secretary of the KSO’s Kangpokpi unit, said their inquiries revealed that Mangboilal was shot accidentally during the firing. “According to the source we have got, this Major Alok Sathe his security personnel were arguing another matter not with Mangboilal but with another person,” he told me. “It seems that during that argument, some problems came up in that incident and the Assam Rifles started firing, and shot Mangboilal Lhouvum. That is what we have found from the local people.”

Haokip also brought up another aspect of the incident that had been raised as a grievance by several locals—Sathe was wearing civil clothes at the time. “Even the CSO”—civil-society organisations—“of the area told him that you should not roam in civil dress with arms,” Haokip told me. “It will create a problem if you are roaming in this manner. That is what the local CSO have already informed to him but he was not listening.” The local who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that on the night of 4 June, after the shooting, the CSOs tried to calm the angry mob that had surrounded and were attacking the Assam Rifles outpost. “Before the police came, the CSOs controlled the crowd,” he said. “If CSOs had not taken stock of the situation, it might have gotten worse.”

The next day, the escalating tensions were brought under control with the signing of an agreement between the Indian Army, the Manipur Police, the state government and local civil-society organisations. The brigadier PS Arora, who is the commander of the 22 Sector Assam Rifles—under whose aegis the 44 AR company operates—signed the agreement on behalf of the Indian Army. James Pami, the sub-divisional officer of T Waichong, who exercises jurisdiction over Chalwa as well, signed the agreement on behalf of the state government, and Ashutosh Kumar Sinha, the additional director general of Manipur Police was also among the signatories. Senior representatives of three civil-society organisations in the area—the Kuki Inpi, Kangpokpi, the Tuilang Area Kuki Chief Association and the KSO—also signed the agreement.

The agreement stated that the police would immediately launch an investigation into the incident, and that the present 44 AR Banglabung outpost would be removed and replaced with a fully functional armed police station at the earliest. It also assured that the Assam Rifles would pay a compensation of Rs 10 lakh to Mangboilal’s family. But according to Enock, the terms of this agreement are yet to be fulfilled. He said the family has received only Rs 2 lakh as compensation, and the Banglabung outpost and the 44 Assam Rifles company remain in the area.

The former serviceman said that Sathe called him on 23 June and threatened him for joining the protests by the locals after the incident. “You were also a part of it, so things will not be nice for you, they can stop your pension,” the former serviceman claimed Sathe had said. He added that he told Sathe, “‘When someone has died, I am a social leader so I have to speak out.’ Then he said, ‘Okay, you do what you want to do, I will also do what I need to do.’” The former serviceman said that two days later, Pradeep Kumar, the commanding officer of the 44 Assam Rifles company, also called him and told him that he “things would not be nice” for him because of his support for the locals.

The former serviceman added that the Assam Rifles had not paid the full compensation because of the FIR registered against Sathe. The former serviceman said that the commanding officer, Kumar, met some of the village leaders and said that rest of the compensation had been withdrawn because of the FIR accusing Sathe of murder. “We can deal with this in customary law, but you had filed a case,” Kumar told the village leaders, according to the former serviceman. “Now, eight lakhs is left. They offered more of an exchange solution, asking for removal of the FIR in exchange for the rest of the money.”

Calls and messages to public-relations officers of the Assam Rifles in Manipur went unanswered. I also submitted a detailed questionnaire to the PRO through the website of the Assam Rifles, which included questions about the incident, about the accusations against the commanding officer Kumar, and about the compensation to the family. I had not received a response when this piece was published.

Though the Kangpokpi police station had registered a first-information report in the case accusing Sathe of murder, among other offences, the Manipur Police has limited scope to investigate the crime as a result of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. AFSPA grants the Indian military extraordinary powers to use force—even to the extent of death—and protection from prosecution in “disturbed areas,” which are notified by the central government. The law is currently in force in four states of the Northeast—Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur—and in Jammu and Kashmir.

In Manipur, the act has been in force since 1980, though it was lifted in seven constituencies in 2004, following widespread protests against the brutal killing and custodial rape of a 32-year-old Manipuri woman, Thangjam Manorama, by the Assam Rifles in July that year. In August 2008, the central government and two umbrella organisations of Kuki insurgent groups—the United People’s Front and the Kuki National Organisation—had entered into a Suspension of Operations agreement. This agreement has been routinely extended every six months, and was last extended in February this year, until August 31.

Thangminlen Kipgen, the general secretary of the Kuki Inpi, Kangpokpi, who is one of the signatories of the agreement, discussed his concerns about the police investigation against Sathe. “What we did was that we registered a case—an FIR was lodged against him,” Kipgen said. “But that same evening, his custody had to be handed over to the Assam Rifles. So right now, he is in the custody of the Assam Rifles and the police are doing all they can to alert the team. But it is very unfortunate that the police has massive evidence, but it is still up to the superior or the commanding officer of Mr Alok whether or not he should be tried in a criminal court or he should be court-martialled. It is very unfortunate, but that is how the law is.”

Sony Siemgosang Gangte, the deputy superintendent of police of Kangpokpi district, similarly told me that the police cannot take Sathe under custody because AFSPA mandates that any procedure against the armed forces personnel requires prior sanction of the centre. He said that a police investigation into the incident had begun and was “in progress.” He added that “given the seriousness of the matter,” the investigation was “taken up as per procedure, not because of any terms of agreement.” Gangte also added that “no action” had been taken as yet on the relocation of the Assam Rifles outpost, and that installing a permanent police post at the site would “take some time,” until “funding and allotment” was provided in the area. He explained, “A permanent police post and stationing requires funds for basic minimum infrastructure. The district is facing grave personnel shortages.”

The PIB Defence Wing’s press release, issued on 6 June—the day after the agreement was signed—had raised allegations that the Indian Army had not mentioned previously, according to the civil-society organisations. The press release claimed that the security forces had “launched an operations on night 04 Jun 2021 to nab Secretary of KRA along with 3-4 cadres in Kangpokpi District, Manipur.” The release further stated, “KRA cadres and their accomplices manhandled one of the Assam Rifles personnel and attempted to fire on the troops. Sensing the imminent danger and threat to life, the party reacted using minimum force.” The statement added that a mob then surrounded the Assam Rifles post, and “resorted to unprovoked violence and arson.” It also emphasised that the army “exercised total restraint to control the unruly mob with special consideration towards safety of human life and collateral damage.”

According to representatives of the civil-society organisations who signed the agreement, the Assam Rifles did not raise these points during the talks on 5 June. “Instead of taking things in a very good manner, the Assam Rifles are escalating the things by making this clarification on their part that Mangboilal is a cadre of KRA,” Hoakip, the KSO general secretary, who was also a signatory to the 5 June agreement, told me. “So they are trying blame Mangboilal as one of the cadre of this KRA. We have also informed the Assam Rifles that if he is a cadre of KRA, then why don't you bring out the matters on the day when we discussed or when we were signing this agreement. They were not saying anything in this matter. So, from the side of KSO, we were not very happy.”

On the same day as the PIB press release, the Kuki Revolutionary Army released a press statement stating that Mangboilal was not the new finance secretary of the organisation and that the Assam Rifles’ allegation were baseless. The KRA statement also claimed that the organisation was committed to the Suspension of Operations rules in promoting peace in their areas of operation, and did not commit any acts of kidnapping, extortion or illegal taxation.  

The Kuki Inpi general secretary, Kipgen, told me, “Whatever may be the reason, there is no justification for an army officer to shoot him and to kill him there.” He continued, “On that basis we went and confronted the Assam Rifles. Yes, you may quote AFSPA, you may quote that he’s a central government employee, you may quote that there is the Armed Forces Act—whatever it is, irrespective of all that. We did not uphold that because according to us, he was not an army officer on duty at the time of the incident. Our argument is that he had gone on a personal mission because he did not find it appropriate to wear his uniform, he was off duty conducting a personal duty, he cannot claim AFSPA or other shields to protect his integrity, to protect him.”

Kipgen contested the Assam Rifles’ claims that the KRA was conducting any operations in Chalwa. “Manipur is so peaceful now,” he told me. “All the militant groups are all signatories of suspension of operation. There are no more untoward incidents. AFSPA is uncalled for. Manipur does not deserve AFSPA right now.”

This is hardly the first time that the residents of Manipur have called for the withdrawal of AFSPA from the state. In 2012, the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association, or EEVFAM, and Human Rights Alert, an NGO documenting human-rights violations in Manipur, filed a public-interest litigation seeking an enquiry into extrajudicial killings by security forces. In a significant order pronounced four years later, on 8 July 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that “an allegation of excessive force resulting in the death of any person by the Manipur Police or the armed forces in Manipur must be thoroughly enquired into.” The court further directed petitioners and the amicus curiae to submit a tabular summary with details of investigations into 1,528 cases of extrajudicial killings by security forces, as stated in the PIL.

The next year, the court appointed a special investigation team of the Central Bureau of Investigation to conduct a probe into 1,528 extrajudicial killings identified in the PIL that were said to have taken place between 1979 and 2012. The PIL pointed out that not a single FIR had been registered in any of these cases.

“What we have documented and filed to the Supreme Court is 1,528—this is from 1979 to 2012,” Babloo Loitangbam, the executive director of HRA, told me. “Some of them are directly by armed forces, some of them are by the police and some of them are a combination of police and the armed forces. But it is this net that is provided by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that the police are also misusing, so we cannot say it is directly under by AFSPA but it is all under the statue of AFSPA, and it has created an environment where the security forces can get away with killing, that's why so many killings are happening. 1,528 is only the tip of the iceberg, they are not looking earlier to 1979, they are not looking in other states in the Northeast. This is only a tip of the iceberg.”

Following Mangboilal’s death, the two NGOs issued a statement: “EEVFAM and HRA see this unfortunate incident as a manifestation of the institutionalized impunity provided by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Despite CBI/SIT investigation on extrajudicial executions have clearly established the direct involvement of several police and armed forces of the union personnel in the heinous crime, it is only the police personnel who are indicted and not even a single armed forces of the union.”

It continued, “The killing of Mangboilal is a clear case of extra-judicial killing and the Government of Manipur and the Government of India should ensure that there is prompt, thorough, effective and impartial investigation and a fair trial is carried out in a civilian court by respecting the verdict of the Supreme Court as well as the international human rights standards.”

According to Loitangbam, the two organisations were concerned primarily because it marks the continuing impunity of the security forces despite the Supreme Court order. “Our major concern is that it had stopped for a while after the Supreme Court started this case and had been pushing for accountability, but there is still a big lacuna in the sense that it is only the police who are being indicted and all the armed forces of the union—the army, the paramilitary—are all going scot-free because the central government is not giving prosecution sanction,” he told me. “Once the Supreme Court took cognisance, and especially after the Supreme Court has come up with this judgement in 2016, this phenomenon of fake encounter has almost stopped. But the event that has happened on the 4th is a very alarming reminder that it has not all stopped and it can again start, that’s why we are very concerned that the government has to take very firm actions for this.”

Loitangbam also believed that AFSPA had contributed to the rise of insurgency in the state. “AFSPA has only increased insurgency,” he said. “One of the problems with AFSPA is that it creates a lot of victims. Insurgency in the Northeast is not like India-Pakistan war or Indo-China war, it is a group of people who are very marginalised and very low in terms of power, who are angry because of certain injustice in the society. They raised their voice and started taking some violent recourse. If you get more and more violence, it is like a cat at the corner—when you put a cat at the corner the cat has no other option but to fight back. So AFSPA kind of response has only made the people more and more angry.”

Loitangbam continued, “If your sister is raped and you cannot go to the court and the rapist would still go around as military with guns and uniforms, then obviously there is a very [high] likelihood of you joining the insurgency. Not because you think that you can defeat the Indian army but because that is an expression of your anger of the total injustice that has been committed.” He said that AFSPA had heightened the violence and failed to address the basic needs of the people, which in turn would have addressed the root cause of the problem. The enforcement of the harsh law was only reinforcing “the whole cycle of violence,” he told me. “If AFSPA would have solved the problem of insurgency it would have been solved, if not in 1958 at least in the 1960s right? It continued in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and still now it is going. If you are not learning the lesson in 70 years then you haven’t learnt a lesson.”

“AFSPA is more like a racist law,” Loitangbam told me. “Now there’s hardly any incident but the government is still not ready to remove AFSPA, so our theory from the very beginning is that AFSPA is not just a response to insurgency. If it is a response to insurgency then AFSPA should be kept in the Naxalite area, the red zone, where the maximum insurgency activity, maximum attack on government is taking place. It is kept in the Northeast from 1958 onwards, irrespective of whether there is insurgency or no insurgency. Whether insurgency is up or whether it is down. It is more fear of the unknown.”

“With Northeast people being culturally quite distant from the rest of India, there’s a fear that if you don’t control them, they will get out of our control,” he continued. “I think it is more an instrument of control and basically a reflection of a racist mind of the Indian ruling elite. I think it has very little to do with insurgency. If it was about insurgency it would have gone long back.”