In his memoir, retired police officer John Shilshi reveals the failure of India’s armed forces to calm one of India’s most diverse, turbulent states. A no-holds-barred recounting of Manipur in the 1990s, his book is part bloody history, part strategic analysis of India’s conflict-management methods
Imphal: Posted Sub Divisional Police Officer (SDPO) in Ukhrul, home of the Tangkhul Naga tribe in the north-eastern state of Manipur, Indian Police Service (IPS) officer John Shilshi had a less than pleasant run-in with the Indian army in 1991.
Many senior members of the Maoist group National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) are based in Ukhrul, also home to the separatist group’s founder-general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah, and units of the army and paramilitary forces are active here in counter-insurgency operations, as in many parts of Manipur.
A captain of the Indian army got in touch with Shilshi demanding that a man detained by the police be handed over to them. This man had given shelter to another NSCN (IM) man arrested by the army, he said. But Shilshi would have none of it. He challenged the army captain to “knock the doors of the authority, if he dares".
The now retired policeman recalls the heated exchange with the captain. “Under the law, the police are not duty-bound to hand over any suspect or criminal–except in the court.” Shilshi offered to let the army interrogate the detained man at a police station. “This was mistaken as favouring the suspect.”
When the army neither interrogated the man nor handed over the arrested NSCN (IM) worker to the police, rights groups led by the Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights prepared to file a habeas corpus plea with the Imphal bench of the Gauhati High Court. Shilshi took the opportunity to apprise the in-charge brigadier of the Indian army, and warned him that if the court entertained the petition, the latter’s presence would be required in the court. “It may not be a pleasant experience.”
The brigadier was adamant that the NSCN man was not medically fit to be handed over, and Shilshi knew what repercussions could follow if he took custody and the man later died in police custody. “Yet, I went with my gut feeling. Ultimately the badly bruised NSCN (IM) leader with several marks and cuts on his body was received by the officer in charge of Ukhrul police station. He was given medical treatment at the 1st Manipur Rifle Unit hospital,” writes Shilshi in his book Vale of Tears: Untold Stories of Violence in Manipur, an unabashed insider account by a top police officer, an anecdotal memoir that offers the reader the glimpses into another side of the decades-long conflict in the state, narratives not otherwise seen in the public domain.
Located in India’s strife-torn north-east, Manipur is home to an estimated 3 million people belonging to as many as 29 ethnic groups. The majority, the Meitei people who are mostly Vaishnavite Hindu, live in the valley while the hills are inhabited by predominantly Christian ethnic tribal groups. Manipur also has a population of indigenous Muslims known as the Pangal Muslims. Clashes among various groups and opposition to the government have led to the formation of at least 15 insurgent groups that are currently active and many more that are either dormant or inactive.
An Indian Police Service officer of the Manipur cadre, Shilshi, now 62, served in ultra-sensitive areas of the state between 1990 and 2000. Trained in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism, he led the elite civil police commando unit during his tenure.
A winner of medals for gallantry, meritorious service and distinguished service, Shilshi also served in the Intelligence Bureau from 2000 to 2016 and then in the National Security Council Secretariat from 2017 to 2019, giving him a unique perspective and layered insight into the continuing conflict in India’s northeastern states.
But Vale of Tears, published by Blue Rose, is not merely an account of wars and counter-offensives. The author served during the height of violent insurgency, ethnic and communal clashes in Manipur, and his account delves deep into the human condition in the strife-torn state, and offers an unflinching account of inter-force rivalries and human rights violations.
Shilshi’s first-hand account of this bleak decade reads like a careful dissection of the anatomy of Manipur’s conflict. There are rare insights into how security forces interact with one another, into friction between the state police and central forces. His investigation into how incidents flare up provides an understanding of the causes, consequences, and lessons learnt.
During his tenure as SDPO and then as Superintendent of Police, Shilshi witnessed bloody incidents that mark Manipur’s contemporary history. He was known for his principled policing, often at grave personal and professional risks. Shilshi is a man who follows his instinct, a “gut feeling” by his own description, and it proves him right too.
In Shilshi’s examination, the frequent confrontations between various arms of state power emerge as distressing, even dangerous.
He recounts an incident dating back to early 1995, a tragedy that came to be known as the RIMS massacre, referring to the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal where four Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) men opened fire, killing nine civilians including a medical student. The CRPF men had been on guard duty at the hospital, where a colleague was admitted, when unidentified men fired on them. The civilians were victims of their retaliatory firing.
When the team of civil police commandos reached the spot, Shilshi writes, they were threatened by the CRPF men and soon cocked their weapons and moved in. What ensued was a near face-off between two armed outfits at the hospital, with either team pointing guns at the other. The tension was eventually defused by an experienced sub-inspector leading the police commandos.
According to Shilshi, had the commandos arrived 10 minutes later, several more civilians could have been gunned down. When Shilshi reached the spot, the air was thick with the possibility of public anger erupting. A crowd had gathered, some crying, some shouting, some calling for revenge. Shilshi writes that sensing the fragile mood, he asked the CRPF men to leave the scene.
But the men wouldn’t leave, and no senior officer of the CRPF reached the site either. “This means no information had been reported yet to the headquarter (sic),” he writes.
The book captures various instances when he confronted officers of the Indian army. Shilshi says these were on account of a sincere desire to foreground the rule of law even while discharging duties in a deeply disturbed region.
He mentions another incident, the ambush of a CRPF convoy in 1999 in Tonsen Lamkhai, in Thoubal district of central Manipur, where eight personnel including two officers were killed. In indiscriminate retaliation by the paramilitary force, 10 civilians were killed and many injured.
“Since I was the first senior officer to reach the incident site, I had expected the state human rights commission to record my statement,” writes Shilshi. “Should that happen, I would have bared it all. Second, even the internal inquiry team of the CRPF never considered it necessary to speak to me.”
The Nineties witnessed the long-drawn ethnic clash between the Nagas and Kukis in the state, killing hundreds on both sides, with homes and properties burnt or destroyed. In a damning revelation, the police officer who witnessed some of the incidents observes that even during the peak of this five-year ethnic war, not a single bullet or arrow or spear came from the hands of common people of either tribe.
According to Shilshi, the attacks were carried out by automatic gun-wielding men on both sides, the Naga Lim Guard and the Kuki Defence Force, suspected to be cadres of National Socialist Council of Nagalim (IM) and Kuki National army (KNA), respectively. Both claimed that the cadres were formed to safeguard vulnerable sections of their tribes.
Shilshi writes that despite their professed objective, there were hardly any instances of the two sets of armed cadres targeting each other directly. The so-called vanguards of community safety never confronted each other, and instead carried out attacks in far-flung areas, butchering helpless and defenceless villagers.
Shilshi writes: “Despite both groups being so well equipped, why were the outfits unable to prevent heinous attacks on their tribesmen/women?” At that time, the state had nine battalions of the Manipur Rifles battalions and two battalions of the India Reserve Battalions, totalling about 8,800 personnel in the state. Besides this, there were the central forces including the army, Assam Rifles and the CRPF whose services could have been utilised to curb the ethnic attacks.
Not only were there intelligence inputs about the attacks, but open threats and “quit notices” were also in the public domain. Yet, no proactive moves were undertaken to prevent such tragedies, writes Shilshi. Casualties of such ethnic violence grew from 13 in 1992 to 321 in 1993.
Shilshi also witnessed one of the biggest communal riots in Manipur during his tenure, the 1993 clash between the Meitei Muslims (Pangal) and the Meitei Hindus.
Recalling how a rumour led to the riot, Shilshi says a brawl started when a Muslim gun-runner was unable to deliver the goods to members of the lesser-known People’s Republican army (PRA), a Meitei Hindu group. He instead raised an alarm that led to villagers capturing the two men and handing them over to the escort of the local Member of the Legislative Assembly.
This incident occurred in a Muslim-dominated locality in Lilong, about 13 km from state capital Imphal, and the men were released a few hours later. But rumours began that two Hindu men had been severely beaten up by Muslims, one of them fatally. One rumour also suggested that a PRA member had been killed while the police watched. The ensuing mayhem lasted a week, recalls Shilshi.
This trajectory of violence was punctuated by visible turning points in strategy, which emerge clearly in Shilshi’s narration. The late 1990s, for example, saw a paradigm shift in the pattern of violence, particularly in urban areas. “The tactics of the insurgents is to engage the police and administration through proxy,” he observes.
Civilians, and especially women, were used as proxies. A large number of women dressed in traditional funeral attire were coerced to attend events such as the Ashti or Meitei ritual ceremony held upon the killing of any rebels. This, Shilshi says, was done to provoke action by the district administration because such attendance at the ritual is tantamount to extending open support to members of the Underground (UG). So every Ashti ceremony of a slain UG member resulted in physical tussles between the police and the community.
“They engaged the police by placing women at the forefront of any pro-underground protest or processions to limit police actions and to find convenient excuses to blame them (the police). This change in tactics threw up new challenges for us,” writes Shilshi. The well-known UNLF (United National Liberation Front) and PLA (Peoples’ Liberation Army) also used women power to their advantage, according to the author.
Wittingly or unwittingly, such confrontations were created by the state as well. For instance, monuments of slain underground leaders were erected by the government at religious places such as Cheiraoching in Imphal. Every year on Cheiraoba (the Meitei New Year) thousands throng such places, turning a day of festivities into a day of confrontation.
Using a simple, straightforward style, Shilshi keeps the narrative of violence at the centre, with only a few asides into the stress arising out of police work in regions witnessing conflict. But Vale Of Tears is also a personal book, touching on nothing that the author did not personally witness or investigate. In that sense, the book is a personal diary given an objective and balanced treatment.
In recent years, violence has declined in Manipur. But for Shilshi, the lull is by no means the end of the problem nor a sign of the insurgents backing down. He cautions that this could be a period of strategising for a bounce-back.
Citing the examples of countries such as the Philippines, South Sudan and Nepal, Shilshi says societies the world over have found it extremely difficult to exit once they have tasted the “luxury” of gun culture through armed conflict. Even after former rebels mainstream themselves, the remnants threaten to resurface. We can ignore this at our own folly, warns Shilshi.
Vale of Tears – Untold Stories of Violence in Manipur is published by Blue Rose (Rs 320).
(Ninglun Hanghal is an independent journalist based in Imphal.)