Living in the presence of tyrannical state structures is a standard norm in parts of Northeast India. It is difficult to fathom how these structures create appendages to generate so many bare life forms in the fringes of the state. A falsely implicated person is one among such doubly jeopardized life forms. Implication for crimes unexecuted simply suggests the orchestration of an insurmountable and entrenched power mechanism in force. Technologies, as these, are articulated by the stakeholder to frame the implicated human as a shield to achieve possibly varied coveted aspirations. This not only excruciates annexed life forms, but also stamps out an ostentatious parade of the sovereignty of state law and pent-up masculinity over the feminine or feminized bodies.
Of late, something similar is doing the rounds in the state of Manipur. The people of the state, who are thoroughly engulfed by the legendary draconian law called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) almost seem to have no way out of this ever-deepening chasm. More recently, the Act was revoked in the bordering areas of the two Northeastern states of Assam and Meghalaya and restricted to an extent in Arunachal Pradesh. For some time, this raised hopes among the Manipuri people as well. But the recent turn of events in the state instead direct us to a quite contrary picture. Apparently, such state-engineered events only seem to re-establish the traditional anarchist belief that there is absolutely no escape from the state, it is omnipresent. In this case though, it would be more pertinent to feel stupefied on the chronic omnipresence of the Indian army in Manipur.
It was raining heavily in the afternoon of May 13, 2013. A young girl named Leishangthem Lata who lived in the Nongpok Kakching Mayai Leikai area of the East Imphal district went out with her elder sister to buy medicines for her mother. She waited for her sister outside the medicine shop. Meanwhile, two unidentified persons wearing helmets approached her on a motorcycle. They handed her a box and told her to carry it to the Assam Rifles check post located nearby. When she refused and resisted, one person came and blocked her way and the other slapped on her face. They further threatened to kill her entire family if she didn’t do their bidding and drove away. When her sister came out from the shop and inquired about the box, Lata decided to stay silent and revealed nothing to her.
What a helpless person, like Lata, could have done under such circumstances? She was left with no autonomy of politics and had acted yet politically. Her decision to stay silent had naturally elevated her to the ranks of a human shield. Lata decided to sacrifice herself, as political theorist Banu Bargu writes, not to destroy or terrorize others but to resist organized violence and protect others. She didn’t reply to her elder sister because she thought she would die alone but leave her family out of this matter. It was her only political tool at that moment when besides her, the entire family was in extreme danger. As she handed over the box to security personnel at the check post, some persons came out of the post and claimed that she was a member of an underground outfit. One of them opened up the box and showed it containing a pistol and a grenade. She was immediately taken into police custody. Later she was taken to the court and jailed.
This news was made public only recently in the wake of a revelation made by a Junior Commissioned Officer working with the Assam Rifles in Imphal. In his statement to the Imphal Free Press, he stated that with the aid of unauthorized arms procured from surrendered militants, the army often planned covert operations. These operations were executed with the purpose of articulating staged surrender ceremonies, fake encounters and implicating false crimes on civilians. The pistol and the grenade in the box that Lata was forced to deliver were among such procured unauthorized specimens.
What provokes attention, nonetheless, is the army’s part in reducing life forms into lifeless existences that could be exterminated at one’s volition. The false implication on Lata had materialized her bare bodily existence both as involuntary and voluntary human shields. Use of involuntary human shield is an old army tactic that utilizes civilians as hostages to exert pressure on the adversary of the state. But in Lata’s situation, it was the sheer purpose of obtaining gifts that had driven the army personnel. The whistleblower had revealed that she was innocent and used as a ploy by the security personnel to get rewards and recommendations.
To this end, it can be said that the entire event was triggered by an arcane ethics concerning gifts. While the ethics of the army personnel was purely based on utilitarian grounds, Lata’s role in this part of the story is highly overlooked. And that is why there is less of a media spectacle and following up on such a plight. This is because she did not quite achieve what perhaps Thangjam Manorama Devi did in 2004 by sacrificing her life. People like Lata are easy victims of a collective amnesia almost comparable to the shape of a person who had fasted for sixteen long years as resistance to a chthonic state law. Lata’s gift of self sacrifice (voluntary human shield) to protect her kinfolks and family speaks much against the parade of an inhuman state law. She remains an unsung Meira Paibi, a woman torch bearer in true sense.
After several months in jail, Lata was bailed out by her family at the cost of a cow, some loans and a Manipuri rani-phi sari, which her sister made and sold for ten thousand rupees. The officer also revealed that army personnel were often sent to the Assam Rifles in Imphal on deputation and they were the ones creating atrocities for personal ends. Starting in 1958, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) gained full momentum in Manipur since the 1980s when the state was first declared as a disturbed area. The officer further mentioned that he wrote to the Home Ministry officials about the activities, but no replies ever came. Grieving his utter helplessness on the ruining of the girl’s life, he questions in thin air, “…is this what we are supposed to do?” He seems to remind of the plain old dictum, which says quite succinctly that the state is not always the nation-state.
Dhrijyoti Kalita is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, USA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org