Sinam Chandrajini had five sons until 3:15pm on November 2, 2000. A minute later, she had lost two of them barely 300 metres from her home in Malom village — but it took 12 hours for her to learn of their death.
“My sixth sense said something bad happened when I heard gunshots,” says 61-year-old Chandrajini. She remembers running to the road immediately but soldiers stopped her from going near the bodies of 10 people shot dead by an Assam Rifles patrol team at a bus stop following an explosion.
She returned home, hoping her sons were safe. It wasn’t until the following morning that the village headman broke the news to her: Her boys — 17-year-old Sinam Chandramani and 27-year-old Sinam Robinson — were among those killed. Chandramani was waiting to take a bus to Imphal for his physics tuition while Robinson had to drop their aunt to another village on his scooter. Their 62-year-old aunt was also killed.
Chandrajini recalls eyewitnesses telling her that Robinson, his aunt and the others were herded together at the bus stop where Chandramani was waiting. “No one deserved to die like that, certainly not Chandramani, who won a national bravery award in 1988,” she says.
Fourteen years on, the families of the Malom victims say they are still waiting for justice as they struggle to cope with the trauma of losing their loved ones.
For many mothers in Manipur, losing a son to a decades-old conflict in the state is not unusual: According to a report submitted in March 2012 by Manipuri rights groups, they lost 1,497 sons in encounters with security forces between 1979 and May 2012, of which 98 were minors.
While some of those killed were rebels, many were just collateral damage in the conflict, say counter-insurgency officers. Most massacres of unarmed civilians in Manipur followed a lethal strike by rebels on armed forces personnel, but the trigger at Malom was an explosion that caused no harm.
Sharmila, known as the Iron Lady of Manipur, began her indefinite fast after the Malom massacre. She was arrested a few days later and was then sent to a prison hospital, where she has been force fed via a nasal drip several times a day.
Rights activists allege security forces misuse the Forces Special Powers Act of 1958 which gives them wide powers to search and detain anyone suspected to be involved in the armed revolt in Manipur. The act, which covers large parts of the northeast and Kashmir, also gives security forces powers to enter property and shoot-on-sight.
The military says the law is necessary for it to tackle insurgency and that it investigates allegations of abuse against soldiers.
Some of the families also complain about the slow pace of getting justice from the government. Officials in Manipur say the law moves at “its own pace”.
Kangujam Memcha, who lost her husband in the Malom massacre, says she is still waiting for justice 14 years later.
“The soldiers had the power to kill at will and they did their job. But we have been let down by the government that has been sitting on an inquiry report for ensuring justice to the victims,” she says.
But villagers in Malom have not given up their battle to ensure punishment for what they call “killers in uniform” and compensation beyond the “ridiculous value the government puts on a human life”.
“Our battle has been like a life sentence,” says Tokpam Somorendra Singh, 70, convener of the Ten Innocent Victims’ Memorial Trust Committee. His 19-year-old son Shantikumar was among the 10 victims.
Singh fears the fight might lose momentum just as a white stone memorial at the bus stop has gathered moss. “Manipur’s future cannot make the past redundant, certainly not Malom that made Sharmila start her marathon fast. This is as much our fight as of the world beyond where people are denied their right of living a decent life.”
(This is the first in a four-part series on 'This is why Irom Sharmilla Fasts'.)