While Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren shows his attempts to improve the image of Manipur Police and its relations with public; and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also claims that the atrocities committed by security personnel against the civilians have stopped as the BJP came into power in the state since 2017 a case of custodial death has surfaced now.
Arambam Nanao, 37, son of Late Arambam Dhananjoy, a resident of Sagolband Kangabam Leikai in Imphal West and a goldsmith by profession who was picked up at around 9 am on May 2 from his residence by some police personnel in plain clothes on the alleged charge of not returning borrowed gold and was brought home at about 3:30pm by the police to take gold from his home collapsed and died in a hospital.
The infamous extrajudicial killings including custodial deaths in the name of counter-insurgency operations in Manipur fade away with the two landmark judgements in 2016 and 2017 by the Supreme Court of India in the case of 1,528 Extra-Judicial killings carried out by the police and security forces in Manipur.
The 1,528 cases date back to 1979 and the most recent ones are from 2012 were brought to the Supreme Court in 2012 by victims, their families – Extrajudicial Execution Victim Families’ Association, Manipur (EEVFAM); and Human Rights Alert (HRA) in Manipur.
The long-awaited Supreme Court judgement of 2016 established that any allegations on the use of excessive or retaliatory force by uniformed personnel resulting in death required a thorough inquiry into the incident and that use of such force was never permissible, including in operations led against suspected insurgents and terrorists. Further, the Court stressed the importance of investigations and that legal judgement(s) for a much broader truth-seeking approach is required, taking into account the magnitude of the extrajudicial executions.
Following this landmark judgement of 2016, in July 2017 the Supreme Court directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to examine 98 killings by police, army, and paramilitary forces in Manipur. Despite some initial delays, the CBI investigation has moved forward, raising the hopes of the victims’ families to obtain justice and redress at last.
While the 1,528 cases are still going on, the death of Arambam Nanao on May 2, 2022 while he was in the custody of police triggers renewed protests against police atrocities and brutalities from the families, public and human rights groups.
The Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights in Manipur and the United Nations (CSCHR) also requested the Manipur Human Rights Commission (MHRC) for intervention on the custodial death of Arambam Nanao in a letter written on May 6, 2022 signed by Joy Chingakham, Co-Convenor of CSCHR, Renu Takhellambam, President of EEVFAM and Babloo Loitongbam, Executive Director of HRA.
The Joint Action Committee of the Killing of Arambam Nanao met Manipur Chief Minister at his office on May 5 submitted to him a four-point memorandum demanding to initiate a judicial inquiry against Sub-Inspector Thokchom Jitendra and others allegedly involved in the death of Nanao. The memorandum also demanded that the police should disclose the identity of the person who lodged a complaint against Nanao at the police station. It also demanded that the government should provide a government job to the wife of the deceased so that she could take care of their three children, and warned the state government that the victim’s family and the JAC will not accept the body if the government fails to fulfil the demands.
Notably, in a remarkable development, the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM), Imphal West on May 5 directed the Judicial Magistrate First Class/Imphal West –II Robert Lhungdim to conduct a judicial inquiry into the alleged custodial death of Arambam Nanao and ordered to submit the inquiry report within two weeks.
The court ordered that until the judicial enquiry is completed, no transfer of posting should be caused to any police personnel posted at Imphal Police Station. It gave instructions to enable the magistrate to conduct and record statements of witnesses smoothly. It stated that the body should not be cremated or disposed of until necessary inquiry is completed and the same shall be intimated to the court. It further requested all the authorities concerned to extend cooperation while the judicial inquiry is being conducted.
It may be mentioned that the mother of deceased Nanao, Arambam Kombirei on May 4 prayed the court for instituting an independent inquiry into the death of her deceased son in the Police Custody of Imphal Police Station.
The petition said that at around 9 am some 3-4 police personnel in civil dress took her son and one individual identifying himself as Sub Inspector Jitendra of Imphal Police Station, riding a white Honda Activa, informed the family members that they should come to the Imphal Police Station. At around 10.30 am, she went to Imphal Police Station but was made to wait until around 1:30 pm when SI Jitendra demanded her to bring Rs 5 lakhs before 4 pm for the release of her son.
She further stated in the petition that when they were arranging the money, some police personnel brought her son home and took him to his room. “None of the family members were allowed to meet or attend to the deceased in his room and his own house by the police personnel,” she said.
It also stated that after some time her son was taken out of his room by the police personnel in an unconscious state and rushed to RIMS Hospital by two police personnel where one was not wearing a police uniform. Her son soon died on reaching the hospital and later, the petitioner found out that her son was beaten and tortured in the police station as there were so many visible bruises all over the body of the deceased.
The court order mentioned that on the morning of May 3, the court heard the news published in local newspapers and expected the submission of an FIR copy in connection with the reported incident before the court in compliance with the statutory provision under Section 157 of the Code of Criminal Procedure,1973 (CrPC). It is requisite for the authorities to register an FIR in the case of custodial deaths, it stated. “However, it was already 3 pm and no FIR copy was sent to the court,” the order noted.
Only after the court inquired, the soft copies of an FIR No 106 (5)2022, Imphal Police station and Ejahar were received through WhatsApp at around 4.30 pm, the order added.
After receiving the FIR registered under 304/34 IPC and Ejahar, the court stated that a prima facie case exists of custodial death and directed for conducting suo moto judicial inquiry.
The court further stated that the place of custodial death happened in the heart of the state capital, Imphal where the Police Station shares the same compound with the office of the Superintendent of Police, Imphal West and offices of other high-ranking police officers. Just across the street, the state police headquarter and bungalow and office of the chief minister is located, it mentioned.
“There were reports in the past that the cry of custodial torture in the Imphal Police Station could be heard in the adjacent New Secretariat building. According to the mother of the deceased, her son was abducted in the morning and brought home around 4 pm, thus unless the police personnel took the deceased at other places, the deceased was in the precinct of the Imphal Police Station from around 9.30 am to 3.30 pm (6 hours),” the court stated.
It implies that the alleged custodial tortures and eventual murder could not have missed the ears of the OC and other police personnel who are posted there on that day unless they are on leave or details for outside duties, it stated.
When the court inquired, it was noticed that on the arrest memo given to the mother of the deceased, the reason of arrest given at serial No 5 was left blank or unfilled. The deceased was not arrested on any FIR-related case or any direction given by the Magistrate Court for inquiring under Section 202 of CrPC, as per the court.
After thorough inquiry, the court directed the magistrate for judicial inquiry with directions that to cover the circumstances leading to the death of the deceased; the manner and sequence of incidents leading to death; the cause of death and its motive behind such an act, any police personnel and other persons who have abetted in the act leading to the death; any act of omission on the part of police personnel or other public servants who have the knowledge but failed to safeguard the life of the deceased and whether any property or cash/ money has been seized by the police personnel from the deceased or from his family members.
It may be mentioned that the Sub-Inspector of Manipur police Th Jitendra Singh was suspended on May 3 in connection with the death of a man in police custody, allegedly after brutal torture by the Imphal West district police.
Further, he was arrested and produced before the court with a prayer for six days police custody on May 5. Chief Judicial Magistrate, Imphal West, Alex Muivah remanded SI Jitendra in six-day police custody till May 10 after considering the allegations.
It may be mentioned that according to the NHRC guidelines, cases of custodial deaths require an inquiry by a judicial magistrate. The court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM), Imphal West also stated that a prima facie case exists of custodial death though inquiry is being conducted indicates the return of police custodial deaths in Manipur in spite of Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren’s efforts to improve the image of Manipur police and its relations with public.
Senior Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics