I remember the day I was travelling to Oinam village in Manipur’s Senapati district. The beauty of Manipuri landscapes made me wonder if I was journeying through a world of paintings. As I shifted my attention from the far mountains, rivers and grasslands to the road that connects to Oinam, I saw armed men in uniform walking on either side of the road, mostly from army camps en route to nearby villages.

As “Vidai kodu engal nade” (grant me farewell, my land!) was playing on my headphones, a song that explains the peril of locals in a zone of armed conflict, I opened The Judgment That Never Came by Nandita Haksar and Sebastian Hongrey.  This book was given to me by Babloo Loithanbham, founder of Human Rights Alert, that morning when we started out to collect information on extra-judicial killings under Operation Bluebird in Oinam village after the Supreme Court order of July 7. Throughout the ride, what remained immovable was the torture that villagers in Senapati district suffered in Operation Bluebird. The accounts by Nandita Haksar were no different from what I heard in Onaeme Hill. On its 30th anniversary, here is the story of the suffering people in Oinam and other villages in Senapati district endured in Operation Bluebird.

Bluebird(July-October 1987), according to an Amnesty International report, was retribution for an attack by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) on the army post in Oinam where they killed nine soldiers, and stole 150 guns and 125,000 rounds of ammunition.

According to the report, and activists, the excesses in Oinam and 35 surrounding villages in Senapati district were rationalised as an operation against the NSCN, though it was an act of revenge. People were not allowed to return to their homes, and a number of people locked inside the community church were not even given the chance to go out to urinate. Cattle were let loose to graze the fields, as a result of which crops were damaged, leaving the village with little to no food.

It is claimed that soldiers ate the little food left over and killed the cattle as well. Many villagers were used as slaves to cook for army units. Slavery, torture, rape and hunger became the fate of villagers for over three months. 

It is claimed that soldiers ate the little food left over and killed the cattle as well. Many villagers were used as slaves to cook for army units. Slavery, torture, rape and hunger became the fate of villagers for over three months. Several people died as a result of this abuse. Those who survived the operation are still waiting for justice because many parts of the state are still under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Oinam is still hung over from Operation Bluebird.

The popular belief that the army can do no wrong has coloured all public perception of its activities. This perception has enabled civilians not affected by the operation to legitimise the brutal response in Senapati as a reasonable and worthy answer to the acts of NSCN. At the same time, assuming it was legitimate, it is hard to understand why villagers who were merely suspected to have housed the NSCN rebels should be subjected to torture. And despite first-hand evidence such excesses were not considered a violation of human rights even in the courts. Generally, a killing may be indemnified and be termed an encounter if armed personnel submit an account of the arms and ammunitions seized in the encounter. Indeed, one of the reasons for Bluebird was the recovery of stolen arms and ammunition. Not once did any unit give accounts of the weapons and ammunition recovered from the village during the operation between July and October 1987 in spite of numerous request from civil authorities.

At Oinam we spoke to the elders and with their help worked until dusk. It was while watching the dusk set in that the stories of Oinam shone in a new light.

Manipur showed me a reality, less known to the rest of India—the reality of life under AFSPA. There have been 1,528 recorded killings by the armed forces, mostly extra-judicial, in the last two decades. I was in a land where a family could never be certain that their father/mother/sister/brother would come back home alive every time they stepped out. The risk to which one is exposed, living in Manipur, threatens the very right to life, let alone the right to living in clean, healthy surroundings.

It has created a situation where the Manipuri, to whom such aggression by the armed forces is unjustifiable, still prefers to become a police commando as that is one way to ensure that he and his family survive without harassment. When only brute aggression guarantees survival rule of law loses its meaning. It is like an epidemic where the assertion of power via violence is the only key to survival.

At dinner, there were more stories. The King Chilli, one of the hottest in the world, served to us, was used as an instrument of torture in Operation Bluebird. People were force-fed the chilli and some Assam Rifles troopers even shoved the powder up the anal or other organs of men, women and children, if accounts are to be believed. The village headman sat with us after dinner to tell us about Operation Bluebird. He was more than willing, we didn’t have to push him. Operation Bluebird haunts their memory. As he explained how his hands were tied with rope, he lifted them up in the air and crisscrossed them with so much pressure that one felt the hurt seeing it. He pressed his toes against the ground while explaining he was suspended in the air and was desperately trying to touch the ground with his toes. It was as if  his torture demanded he relive those moments of pain. I wept before even someone translated his Manipuri to me. It seemed to me that the language of pride the security nation-state spoke did not understand this language of suffering.

As he narrated his journey between life and death, his anger at the indignities to which he was subjected was plain to see. He refused to die because his heart desperately yearned for justice, for himself and his land. Three decades have passed and many like him are still striving for a measure of justice for their land and people.

As an outsider, every cultural symbol of the Naga people of Oinam in the dinner hall, like the King Chilli and their totem sticks fascinated me. I wanted to know the cultural significance of the stick and chilli, to know more about it. When I did ask, the replies I got stunned me. When I pointed to the totem stick, he told me how one of their women was tied to the stick and raped by 7-8 armed personnel. I realised that the torture of Operation Bluebird had erased the cultural memories associated with their symbols. Their original significance had been overlaid with memories of torture, pain and rape. The erasure of their cultural memory by this rewriting had changed the nature of storytelling among a group of people and this is possibly the worst aspect of the new world wrought by AFSPA in Manipur. The change in the nature of narratives from familiar tradition to construct of horror could affect the community not only in the present and past but also in the future and across generations.

On the foggy drive back to Imphal, our guide Lucky told us the fog reminded him of the day Bluebird was launched. As he was in his mid-20s, Lucky seemed to have internalised his grandmother’s memories. “Things were just too close to normal before the fog. When the fog covered our hill, we could see a change in normalcy. When it was clearing we faced Operation Bluebird.” I could sense the three realities of the normal that existed in the car as he spoke. The first was a normalised normalcy with AFSPA of Lucky and many other Manipuris; a normalcy without AFSPA (mine or that of other non-Manipuris in the cab); and when AFSPA manifested itself as Operation Bluebird to normalise violence in their community.

Only a sustained search for the truth in Manipur can bring out the excesses that seem to be routinely committed during such operations and encounters. On July 14, 2017, the  Supreme court ordered the CBI to institute a SIT to probe the alleged extra-judicial killings in the case of Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association (EEVFAM) &Anr. Versus Union of India &Anr.

Such a special investigation team may not aid in helping the truth to surface. First, the investigation of truth by such a body gives the process of discovering the truth a bureaucratic stain. Secondly, it becomes a commercial substitution by awarding compensation and serving it up as justice. What is lost is the ritual of confession, the expression of true remorse and denial or acceptance. A society filled with people defending their own stance will not aid in its ethical repair. It is the coming of community in forms of confession, repentance, and forgiveness that makes way to rebuild conflict zones.

In a place that has been torn apart in blood and death, and where everydayness has become a ritual of violence, will atonement be the fitting reply? That is for Manipuris to decide. As an outsider, the only question that rings in my mind is that, “Will there be a chance for a truth commission like South Africa that will heal the scars of many such operations in Manipur and also aid the catharsis of memory and culture?”

It would be something to see the North-Eastern people re-creating memories of joy and connecting once again with the symbols of their cultural importance. I wish to see the certainty of returning home when they step out. I wish to see fewer widows, half-widows and orphans. I wish to see the communities learning to co-exist with their multiple ethnicities .As Desmond Tutu puts it, quoting the sociologist Shiv Visvanathan’s words in his Catharsis and Creation lectures, “I am because of who we are”. We here would be inclusive of the community, security personnel and the state.

“As we part, let us spread a smile across our lips
Let us hide our soul in our bodies
We are journeying from here only as empty shells”

— Excerpt from “Vidai Kodu Engal Nadu”