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Babloo Loitongbam is one of the most well known human rights activist in Manipur and the founder of one of the earliest human right organisations in Manipur, Human Rights Alert. In Bangalore to attend a two-day conference organized by the Alternative Law Forum, Babloo spoke to Bar & Bench about the “Pandora’s box” that is human rights, the quiet persistence of Irom Sharmila and why he is grateful he studied mathematics in school.
Bar & Bench: Human right issues in Manipur are not really picked up by mainstream media. Thoughts?
Babloo Loitongbam: Well one of the reasons is that Manipur is far away from the media hubs of say Delhi, Bombay or Calcutta. But more than that, there is also a disconnect in terms of the civil society processes [in Manipur].
Somehow the Northeast has always been a “blank space” in the media, be it in terms of content or just having editors, policy makers or reporters from the Northeast. Unless something really gruesome happens, the day-to-day processes and the struggles of the people are just not picked up by the mainstream media. It is definitely more than just geography.
B&B: How did you end up starting Human Rights Alert?
BL: People from the Northeast who come to study in metropolitan cities are always ghettoed as “chinkis”. I was a student of Delhi University (DU) and felt myself gravitating towards left-wing politics.
And I found that the human rights movement was a lot more accepting than the mainstream. When I began studying law in DU, I got interested in civil liberty issues and worked in a human rights organisation for some time.
But I found that the challenges in the Northeast, in terms of human right struggles, were so huge. And there was a lack of leadership. So with the little training that I had as a lawyer, as someone who had documented human right violations and had some training in UN processes, I went back to Imphal.
Initially it was more of a mass movement of people agitating against violation of rights by the Army, the State etc. But I realized that it was about time we started a formal, human rights organisation. And that is how Human Rights Alert (HRA) was formed.
B&B: At HRA you focused on building a grassroots curriculum.
BL: Yes. No matter how much we talk at seminars and write papers, unless the people who are affected learn the art of talking about their rights, I don’t think translating human rights into reality is possible.
This will only be possible if you actually teach the people…you encourage them to see themselves as right holders rather than as subjects of an authoritarian government.
So we started going to the villages and sitting around with the young people there. During school vacations, three of us would go there, talk with them, and eat with them. Go to the Primary Healthcare Centre, look at its condition, and discuss how we can make it better.
The grassroots curriculum was something that emerged from the ground. So then we standardized this and started doing a series of workshops. We would teach them how to file an FIR at a police station, how to file an RTI application etc.
B&B: So it is more of a practical training that you provide?
BL: Yes. We also try to tell them that the money that is coming in [from the government] is not because the MLA likes you or the pradhan likes you. It is an entitlement that you are supposed to get as a human being, to have a decent standard of living – that is a Constitutional guarantee. You should be able to know your entitlements – how many kilos of rice you are supposed to get- those basic things.
How do you start claiming it rather than begging it from the people in authority? You actually start asserting your rights.
B&B: You must have faced resistance.
BL: Oh huge. There was reluctance from the people as well when they were not really sure what we were talking about. Also in the Northeast there are a lot of armed militant formations that control territories in various forms. So we have to negotiate with them at various levels when we want to go to the grassroots.
Also, when we were conducting workshops, Army people would just walk in. They would think that we are training people to start guerilla warfare. So we invited them to come and sit in the sessions and be part of the process if they wanted to.
And there are times when the underground factions would intimidate people. Even though they are supposed to be revolutionaries against the system of corruption (pauses) It is a complex situation.
B&B: In January this year, the Supreme Court constituted an Inquiry Commission to look into claims of fake encounter deaths in Manipur. This must have been a huge victory for your organisation.
BL: In terms of justice, the process has to be seen at two levels. Prof. Amartya Sen put it very beautifully when he said that justice is about “niti” and “nyay”. Niti is about rules and regulations and what happens in court. But nyay is about the people knowing their voices are being heard and that the State is responding to it.
So at the level of niti there is a long way to go but in terms of nyay, I think people do feel that a justice process has been initiated. They are smiling a lot more; these are people who were completely desperate. There is a little bit of hope that has come up and I think that is very, very essential – to give that sense of hope.
A 23-year old widow, whose husband was brutally killed, was branded as a terrorist. She had an eight-month old child to look after. The 60-70 years of life she was looking at were dark and hopeless.
But now, after the Supreme Court’s Commission, these invincible policemen coming inside the dock, sweating while our lawyers were cross-questioning them– that was something amazing.
There was one lady whose son was killed after being shot 15 times. She was there [at the Commission proceedings] the whole day because her son was one of the six cases randomly picked up by the Supreme Court. She was there till late into the evening. When the cross-examination was over, I just went over to her and asked her what she had thought about the cross-examination. You know what her response was?
“I feel so relieved today. I have always been traumatised wondering about my son’s last moments with fifteen AK-47 bullets in his body. Only today I came to know that he could have been killed by the first bullet; he would not have experienced the pain of the other 14 bullets.”
She had never seen the murderer of her son, and the questions that must have been in her mind – they must have really burdened her mind. That evening it felt as if someone had lifted this burden, this burden of wondering what the last moments of her child’s life was like. For 8 years, this has been going on in her mind and in her heart without getting an answer.
So it is not just the report (a copy of which can be read here) but the process of creating accountability that is important.
B&B: You have said that more than 1,500 people have been “extra judicially” terminated by security forces. That is an extraordinarily large number.
BL: Actually, Manipur is not the worst. If you look at Mizoram and Nagaland during the 1950s and ‘60s it was far worse. It was the only region in the country where the Air Force was called out to conduct aerial bombings. The Northeast was a war zone for a very long time but somehow people take it for granted – because there was an insurgency, this is the expected response. The State is almost expected to hit them back.
It is a very interesting theory. Even today, many of the people high up in the bureaucracy believe that because there is “terrorism”, the State has to respond this way. The whole issue of the Armed Forces Special Provisions Act (AFSPA) is this – because there is insurgency we have to use the Army and crush it. But what they have failed to see is that such small, ethnic groups are resisting the Indian state for 55 years.
B&B: In an interview, you have said about Irom Sharmila, “She was very quiet but persistent with her questions” You also said that when you met Sharmila’s mother, you felt very guilty that you had told Irom about AFSPA.
Do you still feel guilty?
BL: In a way, yes. You know, at one level, ignorance is bliss. And that is the problem with human rights work. I remember when I first went to Geneva for training I met the [then] UNHCR, Jose Ayala-Lasso. I remember desperately wanting to ask him a question; I remember having sweaty palms.
Anyway, I stood up and said, “Sir, when you teach us human rights, it is a Pandora’s box. If I imagine what is happening in my home, and if you say that I have this right, this right and this right – you are actually opening a Pandora’s box. We don’t know whether we will be able to achieve this in our lifetime. You are disturbing my inner peace. I have started realizing that things are wrong, that things are unjust….. It is like stirring the hornet’s nest!”
And Ayala Lasso told me that this was the struggle of human rights. To fight for human rights you have to be inspired, to struggle. There is no other way out. This was 1996 and I have also been trying my level best to bring some change.
Sharmila and I worked together on a study lead by Justice Suresh of the Human Rights Law Network. She was such an enthusiastic person. One week after we finished this study, there was a massacre where 10 innocent people were killed. Then she took a stand, knowing that there was no alternative left but to put her own life in the line of fire. It has been 13 years now.
At least the debate on the AFSPA has reached a height that was never there earlier. The [AFSPA] has existed for 55 years and hardly anyone even spoke about it.
B&B: Could you tell us a bit more about Sharmila as a person? There was a newspaper article that said that she was in love with a British citizen?
BL: She is a quiet person, a real introvert. Even when we were working, she was always sitting at the back, listening very carefully. If she had a problem, she would not raise her voice. Instead she would come to me and say, “Brother, I did not understand this.”
When we looked at the records, we found out that she was not absent for a single day. She would show up every day and complete the training or documentation exercises.
We never expected that she would take such a position. And how on earth she fell in love with this guy, we just don’t know (laughs). They never met, they just kept writing to each other. Anyway, that is her personal life.
B&B: The AFSPA is just one of the problems in Manipur. In 2006-07 you were part of a fact-finding committee inquiring into allegations that members of the underground UNLF had raped 20 Hmar women.
BL: See from 2004 to 2007, there were a series of military operations in Manipur. Through these operations, the Indian Army pushed the UNLF back to nearly 10 kilometers from the Myanmar border.
And the problem faced by people in the hills is that whosoever is the dominating force, they have to swear allegiance to them. Be it the army or the insurgents.
So this area was under the control of the UNLF and when they were suddenly pushed back, there was an allegation that certain members of the UNLF had raped 20 women. We formed a multi-ethnic fact finding team to go to the place. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to go inside the camp, we were not given any medical evidence. All we could say was that there was a clear allegation of rape but we could not say anything further.
But it is always problematic you see, when you are dominated by the Army, you provide a story suitable to them. When the insurgents take over, you change track. This is the harsh reality faced by tribes in the conflict zones.
B&B: No simple solution, is there?
BL: No. There have to be incremental processes but the minimum that has to start is to have confidence building measures. In the context of Manipur the first step is to do something about the Armed Forces Act. It should not exist. You cannot say people can be killed on the basis of suspicion alone.
B&B: Have you ever faced threats to your life?
BL: Well there were some episodes (pauses)
Once, a lawyer and I were coming back from a fact-finding mission. I was hardly 26 at that time and the two of us were on a scooter. We were stopped by the police commander and separated. I was told to remove my shirt with an AK-47 right on my head. And then they saw our diaries where we had written down all the atrocities the Assam Rifles had done (laughs).
Fortunately at that time, the policeman happened to be a mathematics teacher in my old school. So I immediately reached out to him saying, “Sir you remember me…..” And then we started explaining what we were doing. My entire effort was to calm that person down, speak as softly as possible, telling him that we were only helping him.
These are people who are ruthless murderers. They could have shot me dead, put a pistol in my hand and taken a photograph and said I was an insurgent. And everyone would believe them. I would have just been another number.
That was the first such incident and that whole night I could not sleep. I never told my family about it. I knew that if my parents found out they would never let me go anywhere (laughs).
B&B: Aren’t you worried?
BL: In human rights work, these incidents are…..an occupational hazard. If you go hunting, be ready to meet the tiger. If you don’t want to meet the tiger, don’t go hunting.
We are making some incremental changes though. At least we have given some hope to the families of the 1,500 plus people who were killed. This is something that not even a million dollars can buy. This happiness of people coming to you and telling you how important your work is to them – that is something else.