The local photographer who captured damning evidence of a fake encounter in Imphal chose not to publish the photographs in the Manipur press. Why?
Thokcham Rabina Devi, a pregnant young woman, and Chungkham Sanjit, a former insurgent, were killed in the space of an hour on 23 July in the middle of Khwairamband, the largest marketplace in Imphal. This was hardly unique for Manipur, a state that has seen an average of two or three individuals killed every day over the years. From 1996 until 17 August 2009, the count is 4561 reported to have been killed in the conflict between the Indian government and the numerous armed separatist groups in Manipur.
The lack of subsequent interest taken by either the state or national government in the 23 July killings was also hardly surprising. This did not change when Sanjit’s family protested that he had merely gone out to buy medicine, and no longer had links with underground groups; nor over the cries of two-and-a-half-year-old Russel for his mother, whom he had watched being gunned down. The day of the killing itself, Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh declared in the state assembly that there had been “no option but to kill” insurgents such as Sanjit, in order to check the insurgency in the state. He made no mention of Rabina, who was evidently caught in the crossfire, seven months pregnant at the time of her death.
As with all other such killings, the local media faithfully followed the events, from the bandhs to the teargas shells aimed to kill. The national media, meanwhile, was conspicuous by its silence. Then, in August, 12 photographs were published in Tehelka, the Delhi-based investigative weekly, which were quickly picked up and reproduced by the Manipuri press on 2 August. These seemed to firmly establish what was already being whispered: fake encounter. The effect was cataclysmic. National and international media organisations immediately began talking about the Manipur killings, and the record of the police force in India generally was suddenly brought into question. Locally, the photographs re-galvanised the public agitation over the 23 July killing, which by then had started to mute itself due to the government’s delay tactics and imposition of curfew.
Yet as the public movement for justice picked up significant momentum, hundreds of people came onto the streets in protest. National and international journalists alike covered the story, discussing anew the Manipur conflict, the state’s experience of fake encounters, as well as the impunity and arrogance of the police system. Thirteen days after the incident, Chief Minister Ibobi, who had insisted on standing by his initial statement, finally backed down. He claimed that he had earlier been misquoted by the local press. He also agreed to a judicial inquiry, and suspended six police commandos said to have been involved.
Wet ground in rain
A series of 12 photographs capture the truth behind the lie, the stuff that journalists dream of: potentially the scoop of a lifetime. And, indeed, truth is exposed, the slumbering political class and public are awakened. Yet the decision taken by the Imphal photographer (whose identity remains hidden as a stringent security precaution) as to what exactly to do with the damning photographs raises questions about the continuing censorship in the Indian Northeast. Why, after all, did the photographer choose to bypass the numerous print and electronic media outlets in Manipur and elsewhere, and instead opt for a Delhi-based publication?
Manipuri journalism began with the publication of the journal Meitei Chanu by Hijam Irabat during the mid-1920s. Today, the state is considered a frontrunner in India insofar as media presence is concerned, boasting around 30 news dailies and journals, besides a large number of home cable networks, in a small population of some 2.4 million. But it is not difficult to understand why the photographer took the decision to publish first in Delhi. Like journalism, censorship – self or imposed – is not new to Manipur. Two factors – the presence of around 40 underground groups, each engaged in ‘fighting on behalf of the people’, and a militarist state policy – make for a potent deterrent to freedom of expression and sanctity of the press.
When it rains, everything on the ground is bound to get wet. The media too has not been spared the impact of the longstanding conflict. As many as six journalists have been shot dead by unknown gunmen from 1993 to date. The most recent was Konsam Rishikanta of the Imphal Free Press, who was killed on 19 November 2008 in what local journalists strongly believe was another fake encounter by police commandos, though the latter deny any involvement. This is in addition to the numerous attempts on the lives of other journalists, kidnappings and harassment by underground groups, even as these same groups use the media to get out their messages.
The state too has freely squeezed the media. During the 1950s, government actions such as seizing papers, imposing fines, closure of printing presses and imprisonment of editors were commonplace following any criticism of the government. During the 1970s, when the insurgent movements began to spread, the seizure of press material and arrests of journalists were likewise routine. Two editors – Salam Bharatbhusan of Hueiyen Lanpao and Meinam Mithai of Matam – were even booked under the National Security Act and imprisoned for six months. In April 2000, N Biren Singh, currently a minister and formerly the editor of Naharlogi Thoudang, was arrested by the state police for publishing a speech by activist Th Iboyaima, on charges of it being ‘seditious’ and ‘anti-national’.
For over a week in July-August 2007, journalists were sitting in dharna in protest of a ‘bomb gift’ sent to the Sangai Express after it refused to publish an insurgent group’s press release. Yet on 2 August, the state government passed an order against the publication of news items “directly attributed to unlawful organisations, organised gangs, organisations, terrorists and terrorist-related organisations considered to be subversive and a threat to the integrity of the state and the country.” The order even included obituary notices. This created a dire situation for the media.
In October 2008, editors, senior journalists and functionaries of the All Manipur Working Journalists Union (AMWJU) were called up by the director-general of police, Y Joykumar, regarding recent news items about urea smuggling involving state forces. The journalists were forced to identify the reporters who had filed the stories, as well as their sources. Shortly thereafter, a reporter who had written about quality control related to an embankment built on a major river was summoned by the irrigation minister, N Biren, himself a former journalist, and berated in front of other journalists, questioning the credibility of his reporting. Such attitudes towards journalists are symptomatic of the growing lack of space for free expression in Manipur. People’s movements demanding justice are responded to with curfews; while protestors are dispersed with teargas, mock bombs and rubber bullets. Indeed, for the first time, this year Manipur celebrated Indian Independence Day under curfew.
Yet, the media fraternity in Manipur has shown tremendous courage, and has refused to buckle under pressure from both the government and insurgent groups. To preserve freedom of the press, the AMWJU has drawn up safeguards, including proper identification of sources, official invitations for press conferences, press releases to be duly signed with the organisation’s seal on the letterhead, setting a timeline for submission of press releases. The media has also asserted its rights to take editorial decisions to withhold news “if the arguments and counter-arguments become harmful to the state and could claim human lives.” This self-censorship, though controversial, must be seen in the context of the volatility of Manipur.
In the end, some are now suggesting that it was perhaps better that the national media broke the encounter story of 23 July. After all, while the local media has been regularly covering fake encounters, human-rights violations and other instances of injustice, both the state and central governments have remained largely unperturbed. However, now that the issue has been highlighted by the national and international media, and as pressure mounts from all sections, the fire simmering in Manipur can no longer be ignored.