Children of Conflict: Manipur

Anubha Bhonsle with Dhenabati’s brother at his residence in Imphal, Manipur

              (The story was first published in Scroll in February, 2015)

Conflicts around the world have devastating impacts on the lives of children. Images of children in war and strife prick our conscience, but only momentarily. On this Children’s Day, here are the stories of four young lives that were felled by untamed bullets in Manipur.

Dhenabati Devi

Age: 11 years

Died on March 14, 1984

Photograph by Anubha Bhonsle
Picture of Target magazine that features Dhenabati.

In their January 1986 edition, Target magazine printed a one-square-inch photograph of Dhenabati accompanied by a 112-word piece. It was on page 5, a letters page dedicated to two of the eleven children who were to be given the National Child Bravery Awards that year. In the picture Dhenabati has a cropped blunt cut and a fringe hiding a portion of her forehead. The bottom right of the page has a picture of Geet Sethi, already a dashing billiards champion who had shot into international prominence by winning the World Amateur Billiards Championship a year ago against Bob Marshall in an eight-hour-long final round. Sethi, as a 10-year-old, had saved a young boy who had fallen into a well.

The one-paragraph dedication to Dhenabati, written by Sachikumar Singh, referred to the young girl as “Didi Dhenabati”. She “pulled me to the side of the road and asked me to bend down,” the article said. “She held me tight in her arms. After some time she fell on the ground as she was hit by a bullet on her head. Thus while saving me she was killed.”

Dhenabati’s mother Seijakhombi was weaving on March 14, 1984, when news came about a firing and her daughter being injured. A volleyball match was on between the Manipur Rifles and the Border Security Force. The field was full of spectators, about 3,000 men, women and children. Dhenabati and her friend had stopped on their way back from school to watch the match. The 55th battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force was posted near the ground, just across the river. The BSF headquarters was nearby and some of their men would also come down to watch the game. A patrol party of the CRPF was making its way down the bridge towards the match site. At one point, when they were just about half way on the bridge, they were attacked. Fifteen members of the proscribed People’s Liberation Army fired upon them from the other end of the bridge (PLA never officially acknowledged the attack). The exchange of fire was like a short burst. The insurgents managed to snatch a few weapons and then fled. The CRPF was to later argue that firing from the extremists continued even as they were retreating.

The match had halted for just a few seconds as the ball had gone flying into the Nambul River and an organiser had gone to retrieve it. The staccato sound of weapon continued to fill the air, growing louder and frequent. It rained lead that afternoon for 30 minutes. Dhenabati ducked when she realised what it was, covering the boy standing next to her. A bullet hit her, piercing the flesh near the ear and lodging inside. Dhenbati was alive and was taken to the district hospital. She died a few hours later.

The 11-year-old at the time of her death was nominated posthumously for the Geeta Chopra Award for bravery a few weeks short of her two-year death anniversary.

Mohammed Azad Khan
Age: 12
Died on March 4, 2009

Photography by Anubha Bhonsle
Azad Khan’s father at the spot where he was shot dead.

In the bare living quarters that Wahid Ali and his family share with another brother there isn’t much to lean against. The open window from which the parents saw the death of their child has been panelled. One part of the house in Phoubackhao Leikai in Imphal is now the bedroom of a newlywed family member. Nothing else has changed. The bench on which Azad was reading out the newspaper to his mother on that fateful day of March 4, 2009, sits in the same position. Two wooden cupboards stand against a dirty green wall, the colour shared by many houses in the vicinity. Clothes hang on a line and two schoolbags tell the story of the children remaining. Sister Sureiya uses her brother Azad’s green school bag now. The letters have faded where once his name was scribbled. The family has a laminated blown-up, grainy version of Azad’s school identity card.

“Azad has cropped hair in this, but it was longer, not like this, when…,” Azad’s mother Garamjan halts mid-sentence. She had fainted when the Assam Rifles soldier pushed her as he was dragging Azad to the field. Her month-old baby girl was in her arms that time and the mother dropped her. Baby Tabassum would die 35 days later. A mother would lose two in quick succession.

When father Wahid Ali appeared before the Justice Santosh Hegde Commission in Imphal in 2013, he would tell the panel the bare tale of how his son was killed. Mohammed Azad Khan, a student of class VII, was picked up from his verandah in front of his family. The boy was dragged to the nearby field, beaten and shot at by a combined force of Imphal West Police Commando and 21 Assam Rifles after they received information that two to three armed terrorists were in the area. Wahid Ali and his entire family would be pushed and locked in a room. From the window, which gave the view of the paddy field, Ali would see it all and plead for his son’s life.

Ali would deny that his 12-year-old at the time of death was a member of the extremist outfit People’s United Liberation Front. He was for the unschooled Ali, “Roll No.11 at the Phoubhakchao High School”. Ali would further deny that his son died in a kapnaba, the Manipuri word for encounter, or that it was retaliatory fire that killed him. He said that after the boy fell a 9mm Smith and Wesson pistol was thrown near his body. Three neighbours would file affidavits claiming the same.

Wahid Ali often walks to the field sometimes in the dark pointing his torchlight to the spot where Ali was shot. There is a tall lean Nasik tree there. “This tree is the witness. It saw it all,” he said.

(Justice Hedge Commission ruled that the killing of Mohammed Azaad was a fake encounter.)

K Orsonjit
Age: 19
Died in March, 2010

Ningol Lata Devi is a stout woman, matronly in appearance. Her hands don’t shake as she opens a brown file in which she keeps the papers related to her son’s death. The parents had found the body of 19-year-old Orsonjit in the mortuary. The mother had refused to collect it saying justice had to be done first. When officials said they would tag the body as unclaimed and dispose of it if she did not claim it in three days, Lata relented. Inside the file is an envelope that holds a few pictures. They aren’t blurry or hazy. All of them were taken at the morgue. Orsonjit’s eyes are open, his pupils fixed, head tipped back and his gaze looks stuck. In the second photograph, his arm is held up a few inches in some un-interpretable gesture. His fingers have been smashed. In the third, the black vest drenched with dried blood had been pulled up to show the bullet holes.

“It was hard to look at Orsonjit.” Lata had leaned over but she couldn’t kiss her son, he was hurt everywhere. “This is the memory the bastards have saddled me with,” she murmured.

K Orsonjit was shot dead on the streets of Imphal in March 2010. He had gone to get his Activa scooter repaired when 41 rounds of AK-47 were fired at him. The Manipur Police told the Justice Santosh Hegde Commission that their intelligence report had hinted at some underground cadre activity and the involvement of a suspect, a married man with children and an Activa scooter.

“Where is this daughter-in-law and grandchildren that the Manipur commandoes claim my son had?” Lata often says. “I have lost my son, I would like to spend the rest of my life with them.”

(Justice Santosh Hedge Commission ruled that the killing of K Orsonjit was a fake encounter)

Sinam Chandramani
Age: 17 years
Died on November 2, 2000

Photograph originally belongs to Sinam family. Author has clicked the original

The day after the death of Sinam Chandramani and his brother Sinam Robinson, newspapers in Imphal carried pictures of a young boy receiving a bravery award from Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. They placed this picture with another one, that of a stiff body lying in a morgue. As a 5-year-old in 1988, Chandramani had received the bravery award for saving another child from drowning.

He and his 27-year-old brother Robinson died on the afternoon of November 2, 2000, in the Malom attack. Chandramani was waiting for a bus to go for his physics tuition. His elder brother was taking their aunt to her home. The Assam Rifles retaliated after their convoy came under attack from insurgents that afternoon, killing 10 civilians on the spot. The family lost three members that day to the attack