In 1994 when Thangjam Karunamaya Singh, IPS, was posted out of Manipur to a public sector unit as its chief vigilance officer in Patna, “Th” — the abbreviation of Thangjam, his Manipuri surname — was changed to “Thakur” by the Thakurs, Rajput gentry of Bihar.
Manipur then was under President’s Rule and three of the state’s senior IPS officers, including the present deputy chief minister, Y Joykumar Singh, L Jugeshwor Singh (killed after he retired as the director-general of police) and “Thakur” Karunamaya Singh, were shunted out of Manipur by then Governor Lt Gen VK Nayar (retd) who had plans to sweep the Augean stables in his own style, beginning with the police.
After some years, all three returned home. Later, two of them retired as director general and “Thakur” saheb as inspector-general, having missed the extension in the age of superannuation from 58 to 60 years for all-India service cadres by a mere one month.
Karunamaya was essentially an old school cop being a product of the Harnett school. Captain Harnett, an Anglo-Indian former Army officer, had taken over as the Commandant of the 2nd Battalion Manipur Rifles in the early 1960s and it was his pet project to nurture and groom future officers of the Manipur police. His famous quote was “the Manipur police officers should be manned by Manipuris”. He visited NCC parade grounds to scout for talents and managed to get quite a handful. To those that made the grade and who were inducted as assistant commandants, Hartnett advised them to “fire only when fired upon” and taught them the art of drinking without getting drunk. It is said that he would lock them up in the quarter guards if found drunk.
In January 1963, Karunamaya joined the 2nd Battalion of the Manipur Rifles as an assistant commandant. The next year, I saw him for the first time commanding the Republic Day parade in front of the Kangla fort. About six feet tall with a robust build; he was a treat to the eye as he guided the chief commissioner.
The parade apart, the hills of Manipur then were unsafe with AZ Phizo’s Federal Government of Nagaland cadres (those days they were called hostiles). The hostiles thought twice before creating trouble as the Manipur Rifles was stationed there permanently.
In 1971, Karunamaya discarded the olive green fatigues of the Manipur Rifles and got into the khakis of the civil police and was posted as the sub-divisional police officer and stationed at Mao, on the Manipur-Nagaland border, then the heartland of Naga insurgency.
Sure enough, on 7 February 1973, a group of Naga hostiles waylaid a government jeep and decamped with Rs 97,000. The matter was reported to sub-inspector Adaho Kohli Mao who, after registering a case, brought the matter to Karunamaya’s notice. They raided the area and after 12 days were able to recover Rs 19,000. Without waiting for any reinforcements they rushed to the site and after a gruelling three-hour trek they spotted their quarry resting near a hut. The two crawled their way and attacked the group and recovered Rs 70,000.
For this call of duty and devotion and gallantry both were awarded the President’s Medal. The next year Karunamaya left Manipur and joined the BSF on deputation as a deputy commandant and served in Tripura.
In 1979, when he joined as SP (Central), then comprising all the five districts of Manipur valley, the cadres of Peoples Liberation Army chief Nameirakpam Bisheswor Singh, were active in the Imphal valley. They were trained in Lhasa by the Chinese. Then there were the home-grown groups like the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (Prepak) under RK Tulachandra. The state saw the emergence of urban insurgency — India’s first and Asia’s second after Saigon.
Local police saw Karunamaya out of the battle theatre for a year but a shaky state administration already recalled his services back as SP Central in 1982, by which time the Army had already been inducted after then chief minister RK Dorendra Singh in 1980 invoked the dreaded Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. The morale of the police force was at its lowest ebb then being taken pot shots at by the insurgents on one hand and sidelined on the other by the Army, which itself was confused, not having imbibed the art of fighting urban insurgency. It was an altogether different ball game than the conventional jungle warfare which they were used to while tackling the Naga insurgency elsewhere in Nagaland and Naga areas of Manipur.
Karunamaya knew that urban counter-insurgency was an art and being the product of the old school he did not believe in fake encounters or using third-degree methods. He sent his boys and infiltrated them into the ranks of the insurgents on one hand and on the other built up a special counter-insurgency force amongst the police ranks and called it “Star Force”. This is the forerunner to the present dreaded elite Manipur Police Commandos, more lethally-armed but lacking in leadership and of late, known for its notoriety than success.
The second bar to Karunmaya’s gallantry medal was added when on 27 July 1980, following a tip-off on the presence of some valley insurgents in a hideout at Konthoujam. He, accompanied by only eight of his boys, broke through their hideout and snatched their weapons. Seven of them were apprehended. He may have killed a few insurgents in the exchange of fire but there never was an allegation of a fake encounter against him.
After his retirement he served the State Human Rights Commission as its special rapporteur — I was then a member of the Commission as well. I recollect when I spotted two would-be assassins, belonging to a non-state group, which had put me on their hit list, positioning themselves as we were having tea outside on the lawns and when I told him about their presence, he immediately wheeled around and joined me in staring at their eyes Thereafter, they left the scene. He later told me, “Sir, if I am to be shot dead I would like the bullets enter through my chest and not on my back.”
The police who shot straight, passed away on 19 March at the age of 81. His last wish was that he should be cremated at the spot which he earmarked for himself, his farm house at Nilakuthi on the outskirts of Imphal. And even as the police band drummed the mourning roll and the Last Post was sounded, the last of the old school of policemen in Manipur passed into history.
The writer is the Imphal-based Special Representative of The Statesman