Sometime in 2010, three former cadres of the Manipur’s People’s Liberation Army were “recruited” by 3 Corps of the Indian Army based at Rangapahar near Dimapur (Nagaland), under its intelligence and surveillance unit that reports to its General Officer Commanding.
The three had apparently been used by this “cloak and dagger” unit for activities that involved extortion, drug- and gun-running, all in the name of counter-insurgency operations under the cover of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.
Then, one day the same year, the Army picked these three up from a place at 7th Mile in Dimapur and took them to Rangapahar where they were allegedly subjected to third-degree methods and, after they were killed, the bodies were dumped in a nearby jungle in Assam’s Karbi Along district. Phijam Manikumar, the brother of one of the victims, Hijam Naobi, reported the matter to the Nagaland police in Dimapur.
A few days later, the Assam police informed their Nagaland counterparts that three bulletriddled bodies had been recovered from a forest in Karbi Anglong. The Nagaland police, in turn, informed the authorities at 3 Corps headquarters, who retaliated that they were immune under the AF(SP)A.
The matter soon reached Army Headquarters when one Major T Ravi Kiran, turned whistleblower and wrote to his superiors at both Eastern Command and Rangapahar stating how, one night, the three Manipuris were shot dead by the Intelligence unit behind their officers’ mess. In his letter, Major Kiran mentioned how Colonel Gopinath Shreekumar, Commanding Officer of the “rogue” unit, was behind the abduction and killing and was assisted by a Major Rubeena Kaur Kheer and a Manipuri officer by the name of Nector.
The grapevine also had it that just five days after the killing, Major Kheer, the alleged “killer lady”, had led the operations to pick up and dispose of the bodies of the three youths. Four Army personnel of the same unit were recommended for gallantry awards for eliminating these three so-called hardcore terrorists.
Under pressure from Fort William, 3 Corps then instituted a one-man enquiry headed by the Brigadier-General Ashawani Kumar, which was a mere eyewash since it was done at the behest of Major-General Abhay Krishna, then Brigadier (Operations) HQ, 3-Corps, acting upon the instruction of Lt-General Dalbir Singh Suhag, then GOC 3 Corps, as the “rogue” unit reported directly to him and was answerable for all its acts.
This inquiry was against all established Army norms, given how such a probe can only be conducted through either the Discipline and Vigilance Branch or the Adjutant’s branches of the Army. Peeved at the manner in which 3 Corps was trying to hush up the matter, the Chief of Army Staff imposed a disciplinary and vigilance ban on Lt-Gen Suhag and his future seemed almost doomed. But as luck would have it, after the Supreme Court turned down General VK Singh’s “date of birth” case and he was on his way out, it became clear that General Bikram Singh would be the next Chief of Army Staff, followed by Lt-Gen Suhag.
The first thing General Bikram Singh did upon assuming office as Army Chief was to lift the DV ban on Suhag, who was soon elevated to the post of Army Commander, Eastern Command, and directed his cover-up operations from Fort William.
He then began revenge “surgical strikes”, and unable to reach General VK Singh, who by then had already joined politics, he targeted Brigadier Laiphrakpam Ibotombi Singh, the Manipuri officer who had served the DV Ban notice on him as GOC 3-Corps, by having him placed under a DV Ban on trumped-up charges. The Statesman had earlier carried a three-part story in this regard.
The matter was soon relegated to being a distant memory in the public mind, but not to the family of the late Phijam Naobi. In early 2014, they moved Manipur High Court seeking issuance of a writ in the nature of mandamus or habeas corpus and prayed for the immediate arrest of LtGeneral Suhag, who was by then ViceChief of the Army.
When The Statesman broke this news, the Election Commission took due note and decreed that the post of Army Chief of Staff could be filled only after the 2014 general election. Manipur High Court, however, ruled that since the incident took place in Nagaland, it was only appropriate that the petitioner move Gauhati High Court, and that is what the victim’s brother did.
The matter dragged on as one respondent or the other from the Army side failed to file replies under one pretext or the other. In the meantime, General Suhag became Chief of Army Staff and got into yet another controversy when he deployed Army troops to appease the saffron brigade in a grand show on the banks of the Yamuna river. His objective was simple ~ to acquire a gubernatorial post.
And this became very clear when an Army officer, posting on the social media, remarked on how Suhag was likely to be made the governor of one of the Northeast states and how his “experience” in the region would be beneficial for the country. A barrage of replies forced the Army officer to quit the Facebook theatre.
In the meantime, the matter came up for final hearing before Gauhati High Court and there remain many pertinent questions that beg answers. The first, does an Army inquiry have legal standing as findings of such an investigation have no prima facie evidence? Second, it needs to be pointed out that any inquiry within the Army is conducted by a HQ formation save for a Loss of Classified Document that is made mandatory by the General Staff Branch.
Further, in this case, the one-man inquiry appointed to look into allegations of the complainant of triple homicide committed by fellow officers was ordered by GS Operations Branch, which was the affected party ~ hence the logic of a judge being able to adjudicate on his own conduct! Then there is the question of the Army not having provisions to go into suicide or homicide being a civil offence.
More importantly, this matter involved the killing of civilians. As pertinently, the one-man inquiry officer neither summoned the complainant nor recorded the statement of Major Ravi Kiran, the complainant. Also, no written statement has been given by Lt-Colonel Perumal, then GI(Int), 3 Corps.
It now appears that the direction of the enquiry was aimed at punishing Major Ravi Kiran for “false allegations”’ and for writing directly to the Chief of Army Staff “in disregard of procedures”. However, the one-man inquiry did not issue Major Ravi Kiran any showcause notice simply because the same would not stand in a civil court and also because of the awareness that such a move would be tantamount to the question of murder.
When reports last came in, Gauhati High Court had asked the Nagaland government to submit the post-mortem reports of the three deceased. The influence of 3 Corps also runs in the corridors of the Kohima Secretariat and the high court has given yet one more opportunity for respondents to file their replies.
The bigger question is whether the saffron brigade in power at the Centre considers appointing General Dalbir Singh Suhag ~ technically under investigation for trying to hush up the murder of three innocent citizens by a unit that reported directly to him while he was GOC of 3 Corps. Perhaps God will have washed His hands of the issue were he to be appointed governor of a Northeast state!
The writer is the imphal-based special representative of the statesman.