Home > 2019 > Justice Denied: Case Dairy of a Human Rights Lawyer

Mainstream, VOL LVII No 29 New Delhi July 6, 2019

Justice Denied: Case Dairy of a Human Rights Lawyer

Sunday 7 July 2019, by Nandita Haksar

This is the dairy of a case I filed in October 1987 and which was disposed of after 28 years by an order of the Manipur High Court in June 2019. The disposal exposes the bankruptcy of the Indian judicial system in reaching justice to victims of large-scale human rights violations.

On October 5, 1987

I filed a case in the Gauhati High Court. It was concerned with the torture and murder of people and large-scale destruction of property during the course of a three-month counter-insurgency operation codenamed Operation Bluebird.

Operation Bluebird was launched by the Assam Rifles to recover the huge cache of arms and ammunition looted by the NSCN (IM) from their post in Oinam village, Senapati District, Manipur.

The Assam Rifles and other security forces did an intense cordon and search operation but did not recover the arms or ammunition; but they did leave a trial of death and destruction. I still remember typing the names of 27 people who had died in the three weeks of Bluebird. The list included a 65-year old man and a new born baby. The baby died after her mother, Lomala was forced to give birth to her baby on August 1, 1987 in full view of the jawans who had grouped the village in the playground.

Another pregnant woman was also forced to give birth to her baby in the open ground in front of the Assam Rifles. Twentyfive years later I had met a young woman and when I asked her name she replied: “I am the baby born in the open ground.”

By the time I typed the names of the three hundred men tortured and the details of their condition I was feeling sick in the stomach. In addition to the deaths and torture several women and girls had been sexually abused and raped; more than 100 houses had been dismantled or destroyed; hundreds of villagers, men and women were subjected to forced labour and hundreds of officials, government servants had been illegally arrested. The Superintendent of police and the Deputy Commissioner had been prevented by the security forces from entering the affected villages.

The litany of suffering ultimately filled several volumes.

The Assam Rifles denied all allegations and they filed affidavits accusing the human rights activists of having links with the underground, the NSCN.

July 6, 1988

The Guahati High Court passed an extrao-rdinary order directing the Sessions Court at Imphal to record the evidence of the victims of torture. It gave the Assam Rifles the permission to cross-examine the witnesses.

This meant we were going to be conducting a massive criminal trial with hundreds of witnesses and cross-examining the Assam Rifles officers and men. This order undermined the very idea of public interest litigation and the writ jurisdiction.

This was an extraordinary burden being put on the shoulders of a human rights organisation without funds and resources. At the time the NPMHR did not have access to foreign funds.

However, in keeping with those times we had a group of lawyers both in Imphal and at Gauhati who agreed to do the case full time pro bono and I gave up my Supreme Court practices and moved to Imphal. I was assisted throughout the case by two junior lawyers, N. Kotishwar Singh and Samuel Risom.

In addition we had a group of Nagas who came together for the first time and became seasoned human rights activists in the course of the case.

August 22, 1988

The Sessions Court began recording evidence of the victims of Operation Bluebird in August 1988.

The Naga human rights activists had to go to the villages, often walking through rain and silt, to reach the news of the High Court direction. There were no phones, let alone mobiles.

The villagers were often intimidated and sometimes picked up on their way to court by the Assam Rifles. Despite this they showed extraordinary courage and determination and gave evidence standing in the witness box with the officers of the Assam Rifles sitting at the back in their uniforms.

The presence of the officers in the court were so intimidating that the court ordered them not to sit in the lawyers enclosure.

One of the most moving testimonies was of a teenaged boy seeing his older brother beaten, tortured and ultimately finding his dead body:

“In the jungle we saw the dead body of my elder brother N. Thava hanging from a tree by his neck with a piece of cloth which was the tablecloth of the school. The dead body of my brother was highly decomposed. The hair from his head were missing, two eyeballs and tongue were also missing from the dead body and the feet of the dead were touching the ground. There were maggots all over the body.”

Witness after witness spoke in clear and measured tone giving the details of the torture they had seen; and more the cross-examination the greater the details of the horror came out. Not a single witness was broken by days of cross-examination by lawyers for the Manipur Government and the lawyer for the Assam Rfiles.

Several witnesses were arrested after they gave their testimonies and we had to run around to get them out. One of them spent Christmas in Imphal jail but when he was released he insisted on giving his testimony in court.

Midnight of December 31st, 1988

That New year’s Eve was tense and I was sitting with Sebastian Hongray, a senior human Naga human rights activist, in the Manipur Baptist Church where I was staying. In walked the SDC, N. Surindra Singh. He had brought all the files containing the inner correspondence between the district authorities throughout the Operation Bluebird. Much of it were his own messages sent from the affected villages.

Sebastian told Surendra he would get killed if we produced the files in court but the man insisted we summon him to court.

On January 24, 1989 the Assam Rifles raided my room in the Manipur Baptist Church—possibly with the view to getting the documents. But they got nothing because we had hidden them the next day with a senior government servant.

On January 30, 1989 Surendra did appear before the court but he looked as if he had been beaten and he kept apologising and told the court that the documents were all lost. We had given the exact file numbers in the summons.

On May 7, 1989 Surendra was killed in a mysterious accident under suspicious circums-tances.

We filed petitions in the Gauhati High Court asking the court to give directions to the Manipur High Court to produce the documents but despite repeated orders of the court they refused to do so and they filed an affidavit to say the documents were destroyed. It was then that we filed the documents and they were a part of the brief. The Assam Rifles produced their witnesses and we cross-examined them.

The production of witnesses was over but the High Court would not fix a date for the final hearing.

April 30, 1989

A team of doctors came to Manipur to examine the victims of Operation Bluebird and to assess the long-term impact on torture.

The results of the report were published by Naga Doctors for Human Rights and it became the first study in India on how torture victims suffered from Post-traumatic Stress disorder long after the actual torture. This report was also filed in the court requesting the court to take into consideration the findings of the report when awarding damages to the victims.

March 1991

Sebastian Hongray and I went to New York and testified before the Human Rights Committee and for the first time the international community heard of India’s notorious law, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958.

The Attorney General of India had to answer questions asked by virtually all members of the international committee and in part this was the pressure which led to setting up of the Indian Human Rights Commission.

Even when the Act was being discussed in the Indian parliament many members had objected to the provisions. Now it could become an international issue.

March 1992

The final hearing of the case took place in March 1992.

An Order of the Manipur High Court notes that the entire records were transmitted to Imphal Bench of the Gauhati High Court “vide an order dated July 9, 1991 at the request of counsel N. Haksar”. The order directed that the entire records be transferred from Gauhati to Imphal within a week.

I can testify that the entire records in 12 volumes running into some thousand pages were indeed transferred and it was on the basis of these that the final hearing was conducted before the Bench of Justice Phukan and Justice Shishak in March 1992.

1992-2019

The victims of Operation Bluebird waited for the Judgement. None came.

The two High Court Judges who had heard the case had been posted out; and Justice Phukan retired as a Supreme Court Judge.

If the victims of Operation Bluebird were to get legal justice the case would have to be argued once again before another Bench.

How would the victims get another group of lawyers and activists who would work for three years without charging them? A new generation of human rights activists emerged but they did not follow up the case. The young lawyers assisting me, N. Kotishwar became a judge and Sam Risom a politician. Many of the activists too became politically involved in Naga affairs. Only a people’s movement could put pressure on the High Court to give a judgement; but Oinam never became part of anyone’s political agenda. It had become a lost cause.

The demand for the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 did become a national issue—mainly due to the spirit of the Meitei women; the women who stood naked in front of the Assam Rifles centre in Imphal and shocked the country and of course the indomitable spirit of Irom Sharmila and her epic hunger strike.

The human rights activists from other parts rushed to Imphal but never bothered to listen to the voices of victims of Operation Bluebird.

In 2011 Sebastian Hongray and I wrote a book, The Judgement that Never Came: Army Rule in the North-East, documenting the Naga human rights activists’ fight for justice, especially in the Oinam case. We hoped the book would become a rallying point to revive the struggle for justice for the Oinam people but that did not happen.

June 13, 2019

I got a paper cutting from a friend in Imphal which stated that a Division Bench of High Court of Manipur, comprising of Chief Justice Ramalingam Sudhakar and Justice M.V. Muralidharan “disposed 28 year old cases relating to “infamous Operation Blue Bird which occurred at Oinam village, Senapati district in 1987”.

The order stated that the full records were not found and so they did not have the brief and they have ordered a committee to be formed by the Manipur Government and district authorities to look into the allegations. The Manipur Government was a respondent; so how can a party be a judge in its own cause? It is a blatant violation of the fundamental principles of natural justice.

New lawyers have been appointed by the Naga human rights movement but it is not clear whether they have the brief.

No one seems to have asked where the 12 volumes of evidence have disappeared.

It is no longer a newsworthy story and the national media is not concerned. It is just a disposal of one of the 42 lakh cases pending before the High Courts in India.

That does not include the estimated 2.7 crore cases pending in District and Subordinate Courts and 60,000 in the Supreme Court.

I do not know what the stories are behind each of those cases and how much accumulated injustice there is pending; and possibly burst in outrage one day.

It does not matter to these victims of injustice which government got in. For the villagers of Oinam, like other crores of victims of injustice, Indian democracy means so little. 

Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer, teacher, activist and author.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62 Privacy Policy Notice Addressed to Online Readers of Mainstream Weekly in view of European data privacy regulations (GDPR)