Pius Varay ducks instinctively whenever a child pops an empty Tetra Pak carton or a motorcycle misfires. The sound is a traumatic reminder of soldiers firing in his village of Oinam in Manipur 27 years ago.
The 36-year-old Varay may be the youngest survivor of Operation Bluebird, a brutal counter-insurgency operation launched by paramilitary soldiers in July 1987, but the scars still remain.
According to an Amnesty International report, many men were maimed, tortured and women raped between July and October 1987 after the military launched the operation following an attack by National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) rebels on Assam Rifles’ Oinam outpost. The rebels killed nine soldiers and escaped with 150 guns and 125,000 rounds of ammunition.
Operation Bluebird was ostensibly aimed at catching the rebels and recovering the firearms. But activists say the soldiers ended up exacting revenge on the innocent people of Oinam and 35 surrounding villages for more than three months. The villagers were also forced to make food for the soldiers for 65 days until they exhausted their granaries.
As a nine-year-old student of Oinam Government High School, Pius was spared the torture of what activists call the “Holocaust” of India. But security forces made him talk because he was among those the rebels ordered to carry the stolen guns to a forest hideout.
“Most of us sang, but the rebels shifted before the Assam Rifles located their camp. The officers just did not believe we could cover the distance across a harsh terrain and return home in a night. We had it bad both ways,” Pius says.
Nearly three decades on, many people in Oinam are still struggling to cope with the trauma of one of the darkest episodes in the revolt-hit state’s history. Several villages were turned into virtual prisons during this period as security forces, armed with the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958, allegedly unleashed a reign of terror in the area.
Human rights activist Irom Sharmila has been on indefinite fast for 14 years to demand the repeal of the archaic law, which gives security forces wide powers to shoot-at-sight, search and detain anyone suspected to be involved in the armed revolt in Manipur. The military says the law is necessary for it to tackle insurgency.
Church deacon Ngaoni Shangne, now 94, says the Amnesty report understates what happened in Oinam in Senapati district, 95km north of the state capital Imphal. The village was hit by the Japanese invasion during World War 2 and Shangne, who the Japanese used as a porter, thought the worst was over when the war ended.
He was wrong. He recalls the second horror saying, “We were made to carry 50-kg loads from one village to the other without food or water. Some men were hung upside down and thrashed while women were buried up to their necks. Pregnant women, kicked and abused, were made to deliver in the field as the soldiers watched.”
Some village headmen were blindfolded and executed with their hands tied behind their backs. Naga rights groups put the number of deaths at 27 but the official figure was 15.
Oinam was made out of bounds for local authorities too. Manipur chief minister Rishang Keishing wrote of how excesses committed by Assam Rifles paralysed the civil administration in a September 1987 letter to Union home minister Buta Singh. “The deputy commissioner and the superintendent of police were wrongfully confined, humiliated and prevented from discharging their official duties by the security forces,” he said.
The legal fight to bring the Assam Rifles personnel to book ended in March 1992 without the final hearing. One of the judges was transferred after recording thousands of pages of arguments from the petitioners and Assam Rifles. He has not been replaced, nor has the date of the next hearing been set in these 27 years.
“If this country cannot provide justice, God will,” says 57-year-old Bluebird survivor Shangvao Rong. “They (the soldiers) will die too, hopefully not like the way they made our brothers and sisters die.”