The last thing one expects of an Indian conflict zone is an unabashed story from a retired police officer about inter-forces rivalries and human rights controversies. Vale of Tears is one such chilling account by John S Shilshi. It is not only about conflict in the North-eastern states but also the human condition there. The author served in the police force during the height of violent insurgency, ethnic and communal clashes in Manipur. Published by Blue Rose, the book is an anecdotal memoir that offers the reader a peek into the other side of “conflict”, one that is not found in the public domain.
An Indian Police Service officer of the Manipur cadre, Shilshi served in the ultra-sensitive areas of the state between 1990 and 2000. Trained in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, he led the elite civil police commando unit during his tenure. The recipient of a gallantry medal for meritorious and distinguished service, he also served in the Intelligence Bureau and the National Security Council Secretariat.
Shilshi’s upright and unbiased first-hand accounts are like a dissection of the anatomy of Manipur’s conflict. There are some rare insights into how the security forces interact with one another in a union of states like India. There are also insights into the friction between the state police and central forces. His investigation of how incidents flare up provides an understanding of the causes, consequences and lessons learnt.
During his tenure, Shilshi witnessed some of the bloodiest incidents of Manipur’s violent contemporary history. He stood firm on his principles, often putting his life and job at risk. For instance, when he was posted in Ukhrul — a place where many senior members of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (IsakMuivah) operate from and also the home of its founder-general secretary Th Muivah — a notsopleasant encounter took place when a Captain of the Indian Army demanded that he hand over a person picked up by the police. The said person was providing shelter to a NSCN (I-M) man arrested by the Army. This did not go down well with Shilshi. He challenged the Army Captain to “knock the doors of the authority, if he dares”. The author recalls his conversation with the Captain, “Under the law, the police are not duty-bound to hand over any suspect or criminal – except in court”. Shilshi says, “I offered to interrogate the person inside the police station. It was mistaken as favouring the suspect”.
Neither did the Captain interrogate the said person nor hand over the arrested NSCN (I-M) man to the police. The Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights and other rights groups were preparing to file habeas corpus cases before the Imphal bench of Gauhati High Court. Shilshi told the Brigadier that if the court entertained their prayers, his presence would be required and “it may not be a pleasant experience”. The adamant Brigadier defended himself by saying that the NSCN man was not medically fit to be handed over. Shilshi knew quite well what the repercussion would be if he took the man and he died in his custody. “Yet, I went with my gut feeling. Ultimately, the badly bruised NSCN (IM) leader, with several marks and cuts on his body, was received by the officer in charge of Ukhrul Police Station. He was given medical treatment at the 1st Manipur rifle unit hospital,” recalls Shilshi.
The 1990s saw the longest and most gruesome ethnic clash between the Nagas and Kukis, where hundreds died on both sides besides several homes and properties being burned or destroyed. As a police officer witnessing some of the incidents, Shilshi observes that even during the peak of the ethnic war, neither a bullet nor an arrow was exchanged, or a spear hurled by common people from both tribes.
According to the author, the attacks were carried out by automatic weapon-wielding men on both sides – the Naga Lim Guard and Kuki Defence Force, suspected to be cadres of the NSCN (I-M) and Kuki National Army respectively. Both claimed that the cadres were mobilised to protect and safeguard vulnerable sections of their tribes. Shilshi observes, however, that there were hardly any instances when the armed cadre groups targeted each other directly. Those so-called vanguards of their community’s safety never confronted each other face-to-face. On the contrary, attacks were carried out in farflung areas, butchering helpless and defenceless villagers. Shilshi says, “Despite both groups being so well equipped, why were the outfits unable to prevent heinous attacks on their tribesmen/women?”
In his account, Shilshi writes that at that point in time the state had nine Manipur Rifles battalions, and two India Reserve Battalions, totalling about 8,800 MR/IRB personnel. Besides them, there were the central forces – Army, Assam Rifles and CRPF – whose service could have been utilised. Not only were there intelligence inputs, there were open threats and “quit notices”. But no proactive moves were undertaken to prevent such tragedies, writes Shilshi. The casualties rose from 13 in 1992 to 321 in 1993. It was a loud alarm for the state but unfortunately no action was taken, rues Shilshi.
The author’s narration of incidents and his investigative observations bring out some startling revelations. Shilshi found that the late 1990s saw a paradigm shift in the pattern of violence, particularly in urban areas. “The tactics of the insurgents was to engage the police and administration through proxy,” he observes.
Civilians – significantly women – were used as a proxy. Shilshi writes that many women, dressed in traditional funeral attire, were coerced to attend events such as the Ashti ritual ceremony of the Meitei community. That, Shilshi says, was done deliberately to provoke action from the district administration since such activities were tantamount to extending open support to members of the Underground, which is impermissible under the law. Thus, every Ashti ceremony of slain UG members ended in physical tussles between the police and public.
“They engaged the police by placing women at the forefront of any pro-underground protest or processions to limit actions and to find convenient excuses to blame the police. This change in tactics threw up new challenges for us,” writes Shilshi. Some groups particularly, the well-known United National Liberation Front and Peoples’ Liberation Army used women to their advantage, writes Shilshi.
In recent years, violence has considerably come down in Manipur. But as the author states, it is by no means the end of the problem nor an indication of complete decline in insurgent activities. Shilshi cautions that it could be a period of strategising. Quoting examples of countries like the Philippines, South Sudan and Nepal, he says that across the world, societies which have tasted the “luxury” of gun culture through armed conflict have found it extremely difficult to exit from it completely. Even after former rebels mainstreamed themselves, remnants threatened to resurface. We can ignore that at our own peril, warns Shilshi.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Imphal