III. The Killing of Thangjam Manorama Devi

Security officials say that Thangjam Manorama Devi was a dangerous member of the separatist People’s Liberation Army.56 According to the army, she was responsible for a number of bomb blasts, including one that killed some soldiers.57 Her family insists she was a peaceful activist and not involved in any criminal activities.58 Most human rights activists and journalists agree privately that she was a member of an underground group but differ on the details, including what role she played.59

The truth may never be fully known because no police complaint was ever filed against Manorama; she was never given an opportunity to be tried in court and found guilty or innocent. Instead, on July 11, 2004, the 32-year-old was arrested from her home by the soldiers of the paramilitary Assam Rifles and killed while in their custody. Her bullet-ridden corpse was left in a field not far from her home where it was discovered by villagers.60 The Assam Rifles claimed she had been shot dead while trying to escape.

A. The Arrest

According to the Assam Rifles, on July 10, 2004, officials gathered reliable information that a member of the banned People’s Liberation Army, identified as “PLA No. 1262, Corporal Manorama Devi alias Henthoi,” a militant since 1995, was in the area of Bamon Kampu Mayai Leikai. She was identified as an expert in improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and as an informer for the PLA.

A petition filed by Col. Jagmohan Singh, the commandant of the 17th Assam Rifles, says that officials posted at Sinjamei were alerted to her presence in the area. A little after midnight, on July 11, a preliminary check post was set up in the area, which confirmed that Manorama was at her residence in the village. The Assam Rifles immediately launched an operation and troops were dispatched to cordon off the area. At around 3 a.m. troops knocked on the door to arrest Manorama.61 The soldiers provided an arrest memo and took her into custody.

This version of events is disputed by Manorama’s relatives, who claim that seven or eight Assam Rifles personnel first arrived a little after midnight, around the time the army claims a preliminary check post had been set up to confirm her presence at home.

Manorama’s home was set back from the main road leading to Imphal, the state capital. There is a narrow passage that provides access to the house. The family compound has two cottages, one where Manorama stayed with her mother and younger brother, and another occupied by a married brother and his family. There is a common courtyard.

According to her younger brother, Dolendro Singh, several personnel from the 17th Assam Rifles entered their home from the main road. No explanation was provided as they rushed in. They began searching the house.62 Manorama’s elderly mother, Thangjam Khumanleimai Devi, was awake. One soldier pointed his gun at her and asked for Manorama. Meanwhile, Manorama had woken up and came out of her room.63

The men began to drag Manorama out of the house. When her brothers tried to stop the soldiers, they were beaten up. Manorama’s mother, brothers, and other relatives were told to wait in the courtyard at the back of the house while she was taken to the front.64 Her relatives claim that the soldiers interrogated Manorama and tortured her. “We heard her cries,” said Dolendro Singh. “They were torturing my sister.”65

At around 3:30 a.m. soldiers came into the courtyard and informed the family that Manorama was being taken into custody. Havildar Suresh Kumar of the 17th Assam Rifles (Army number 123355) signed an arrest memo. Rifleman T. Lotha (Army number 123916) and Rifleman Ajit Singh (Army no. 173491) signed as witnesses.66

Manorama’s mother and brothers were also asked to sign a “No Claims Certificate” which said that they had no claims against members of the Assam Rifles who had searched the house and made the arrest and that the troops “haven’t misbehaved with women folk and not damaged any property.”67

According to the Assam Rifles, “one Singapore made Kenwood Radio Set and one Chinese made fragmentation Type Hand Grenade” were found in Manorama’s house.68 However, Manorama’s brother Dolendro Singh said that he had not seen anything being recovered.

Manorama was still alive when she was taken away from her home in the custody of the Assam Rifles.

B. The Killing

Manorama’s bullet-ridden body was found at around 5:30 a.m. on July 11, 2004 by villagers near Ngariyan Maring, about four kilometers from her house.

According to the Assam Rifles, after taking Manorama into custody the soldiers had intended to hand her over to the nearest police station. They said that Manorama claimed that one of her militant colleagues, a woman called SS Lt. Ruby, had an AK-47 assault rifle and that this information “led to a hot chase.”69 However, when the group reached the area based on Manorama’s directions, she said that she had made an error and then proceeded to lead the soldiers to a number of different locations, each time saying that she had made a mistake. According to the Assam Rifles account, after almost two hours of driving around like this, at daybreak, Manorama tried to escape. 

According to the legal petition of the Assam Rifles:

[T]he apprehended cadre requested to allow her to ease herself. Thereupon, vehicle was stopped and the party with whom she had been travelling, took position at about 30-35 meters away from her to allow her privacy to ease herself. It was approximately 5:30 AM. That all of sudden the arrested lady cadre started to flee through a gap in the nearby hedge. That the guard commander happened to see her attempting to flee and shouted for her to stop and fired a short burst in the air to warn her. That instinctively other members of the guard party fired towards her legs. That as a result she suffered bullet injuries resulting in her death.70

Even if this account were accurate, the troops involved acted in violation of Indian law. As Justice D. Biswas of the Gauhati High Court, who heard the Assam Rifles petition quoted above, noted in his final verdict:

It is evident that the raid was conducted without presence of a lady constable; though the house was cordoned off, no attempt was made to contact the Superintendent of Police to provide the services of a lady constable; the arrested person was not handed over to the nearest police station; she was interrogated after arrest and moved from place to place in search of another lady cadre and there was no FIR [First Information Report] pending against Km Th. Manorama Devi at the time of her arrest.71

The Assam Rifles claimed that there was an attempt to procure a female constable before taking Manorama into custody but their request was refused by the Imphal West police station. However, the police later said that the person who had come to the police station was asked to make a formal application to the superintendent of police. This is a standard procedure and the superintendent is always available to attend to such requests. According to the police, the person simply left and did not return.72

Apart from these procedural failures, there are numerous other reasons to doubt the version of events described by the Assam Rifles. On July 12, 2004, the state government of Manipur ordered a commission of inquiry into Manorama’s killing. Although the commission’s final report has not been made public, lawyers representing Manorama’s family at the hearings had access to depositions made by members of the Assam Rifles, investigating officials, doctors, witnesses, and relatives to the commission. The lawyers told Human Rights Watch that:

  • Members of the arresting party who later deposed before the inquiry commission said that Manorama’s hands were tied while she was in custody. Her relatives also said that she was wearing the traditional Manipuri sarong when she was arrested. It would have been impossible for Manorama to run very far with her hands tied up and in a tightly bound sarong.

  • No member of the Assam Rifles claimed that any member of the patrol party actually ran after Manorama to try and stop her. They said that after shouting a warning, troops opened fire, causing her death.

  • Manorama was unarmed while in custody which makes it hard to understand why the soldiers chose to keep a safe distance and open fire. No empty cartridges were found in the area, bringing into question the patrol party’s claim that desperate shots were fired to try and stop her.

  • No blood was found near the body despite the fact that Manorama had suffered at least six bullet wounds, raising suspicions that she was killed elsewhere and her body later dumped.

  • The police surgeon and forensics specialist who was a commission witness said that the nature of the bullet wounds suggested that the shots were fired at close range and that Manorama was lying down when she was shot. He also deposed that the body bore a number of other injuries that indicated that Manorama had been tortured before she was killed.

  • A report from the Central Forensic Science Laboratory found semen stains on Manorama’s skirt suggesting that she may have been raped before her death.73

  • After the autopsy, the police offered to hand over Manorama’s body to the family for cremation, but her relatives said that they would not claim the body until the perpetrators had been punished and the AFSPA withdrawn from the state.74 On July 24, 2004, the Manipur government ordered the police to cremate the body.75

    C. The Protests

    When Manorama’s body was found, it bore scratch marks and a gashing wound on her right thigh, probably made by a knife.76 Her body, according to her relatives, bore other signs of torture, such as bruising.77 There were also gunshot wounds to the genitals, which lent credence to the theory that she was raped before being shot dead.78

    There was a widespread eruption of rage in Manipur after Manorama’s killing. On July 12, 2004, several civil society groups called a 48-hour protest strike.79 Tires were burnt and marchers carried placards demanding justice.

    A protest on July 15, 2004 made Manorama’s killing national news. A group of elderly women gathered in front of the 17th Assam Rifles headquarters and then stripped their clothes off, calling the army to come rape them as Manorama had been raped.80

    The women belonged to the Meira Paibi, literally “Torch Bearers,” but also often called the Mother’s Front, which had started out as a support group to address social issues, particularly problems of alcoholism among men and drug abuse among children. But as the armed conflict deepened, the Meira Paibi also became involved in activities to prevent human rights abuses, and joined the campaign to repeal the AFSPA. L. Gyaneshori was one of the women who took part in the protest. She told Human Rights Watch that:

    Manorama’s killing broke our hearts. We had campaigned for the arrest memo to protect people from torture after arrest. Yet, it did not stop the soldiers from raping and killing her. They mutilated her body and shot her in the vagina. We mothers were weeping, ‘Now our daughters can be raped. They can be subjected to such cruelty. Every girl is at risk.’ We shed our clothes and stood before the army. We said, ‘We mothers have come. Drink our blood. Eat our flesh. Maybe this way you can spare our daughters.’ But nothing has been done to punish those soldiers. The women of Manipur were disrobed by AFSPA. We are still naked.81

    Soon the protests had spread all over the state, with many defying curfew orders. A number of government offices were torched.82 Many were injured as police tried to control the crowds.83 On July 24, 2004, five young men attempted self-immolation in front of the chief minister’s office, calling for the repeal of the AFSPA. Three of them were severely burnt.84

    In August, in an attempt to quell the protests, Chief Minister O. Ibobi Singh decided to withdraw the use of the AFSPA in Imphal city.85 But the protests continued, with demands to fully repeal the AFSPA. On August 15, 2004, there was another attempt at self immolation. This time, Pebam Chittaranjan of the Manipur Students Federation lost his life.86

    Chittaranjan’s death sparked yet another round of protests that continued until November, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went to Manipur.87 After meeting a delegation of the Apunba Lup, Singh said he would order a review of the law “and also consider how a more humane Act can be put in place.”88

    D. Failure of Justice

    On July 12, 2004, after the discovery of Manorama’s body, her brother Thangjam Dolendro Singh filed a written complaint at the Irilbung police station. Based on the complaint, police registered a First Information Report, to investigate the alleged murder. The police ordered forensic tests to determine if rape had occurred and DNA testing to identify the perpetrators.

    Few believed that the police would investigate an allegation of murder against members of the Assam Rifles. As a result of the protests, the Manipur government immediately ordered a commission of inquiry headed by retired district judge C. Upendra Singh to “inquire into the facts and circumstances leading to the death,”  “identify responsibilities on the person/persons responsible,” and “recommend measures for preventing recurrence of such incident in the future.”89

    The commission was given a month to submit its report. Judge Upendra Singh promptly issued an order calling for statements and affidavits and issued summons to Manorama’s relatives, the commandant of the 17th Assam Rifles, and the three men that had signed the arrest memo. However, when the commission sent someone to deliver the summons to the 17th Assam Rifles, the office refused to accept it, saying that the personnel listed had all been posted elsewhere.90

    The Assam Rifles personnel repeatedly failed to appear before the commission. Initially the counsel for the Assam Rifles claimed that the men were not available because of an ongoing army court of inquiry. Then he cited safety concerns, saying that armed groups had planned to attack personnel who attended the hearing, and filed an application requesting that the hearings be held inside the army camp.91 It was finally agreed that some witnesses would be examined privately in the judge’s chambers (in-camera). However, the Assam Rifles was slow to provide the list of personnel who participated in the operations that led to Manorama’s death. Nor was a list of witnesses provided.

    Judge Upendra Singh told Human Rights Watch that the Assam Rifles clearly did not want to cooperate in the inquiry. On August 1, 2004 he was forced to place public notices in a Manipur daily summoning the personnel.  He said:

    I have conducted a number of inquiries. Every other time, the army appeared. But in the Manorama case, they contested all the time. At first they did not turn up. Then I gave their names to the police, but the police are too shy to go to the army camp. Finally, based on other testimonies, I came up with four or five names. I put them in the newspaper.92

    In its later writ petition before the Gauhati High Court, the Assam Rifles said that a “vicious and false propaganda was let loose against 17th Assam Rifles by UG elements and their sympathizers alleging rape of Th Manorama.... [And] that due to the distortion of facts… a mass hysteria was generated… thus posing a serious threat to the lives of the personnel of 17th Assam Rifles.”93 The Assam Rifles also claimed in its petition that there were intelligence reports that a bounty had been placed on the soldiers and officers who had participated in the operation.94

    The doctors who conducted the autopsy testified before the Upendra commission that they could not form a conclusive opinion on whether Manorama was raped or not because of the injuries in the lower part of the body.95 The Central Forensic Science Laboratory in Kolkata submitted a report saying that forensic tests had detected stains of human semen on Manorama’s clothes.96 A day later Judge Upendra Singh issued arrest warrants against the four Assam Rifles personnel who failed to appear before the commission and instructed the director general of police (DGP) to execute the warrant.97

    However, on August 19, 2004, the Assam Rifles filed a writ petition before the Gauhati High Court saying that the state government of Manipur had no authority to appoint a commission of inquiry to examine the conduct of federal armed forces and thus the personnel could not be compelled to appear before such a commission. It also claimed that an army court of inquiry was in progress and thus there was no need for another inquiry covering the same aspects.98

    The petition said that Assam Rifles operated in Manipur under the AFSPA, which provides under section 6 that “[n]o prosecution, suit or other legal proceedings shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government, against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by this Act.”99 The Upendra commission, the Assam Rifles said, could be described as “other legal proceedings.” As no sanction from the central government had been obtained, the notification by the Manipur government setting up the commission was “null, void and of no legal effect.”100 While the petition was being considered, the Assam Rifles asked for a stay on the proceedings of the commission.

    In an August 28, 2004 interim order, the High Court refused to stay the proceedings of the Upendra commission. However, the judge said that the final report could not be published without prior leave from the court and that the findings would be subject to a final decision on the writ petition. The court also ordered that Assam Rifles personnel be allowed to be deposed in-camera with access limited to the concerned parties and their lawyers.101

    Judge Upendra Singh submitted his final report to the Manipur government in November 22, 2004, but it was not made public because of the court order.102

    On June 23, 2005, in its final verdict, the High Court found that the state government of Manipur did not have administrative control over the armed forces deployed in the state, which are controlled by the central government. The judge thus asked the central government “to deal with the report and take follow-up action as may be necessary in accordance with the provisions of the law.”103 The judge, however, specially said that the findings of the Upendra Commission should not be in vain:

    This report may be treated as a report by a fact-finding Committee/Body appointed by the State of Manipur. However, the interim directions given by the learned Judges of this Court under Article 226 permitting the Commission to proceed with the enquiry attributes some amount of legality to the report inasmuch as the report can be assumed to have been prepared under direction of the Court. Therefore, it is a valuable document available for consideration and initiation of appropriate action against those found guilty.104

    To make clear that the court expected the central government in New Delhi to ensure the prosecution of those responsible, the judge also said, “Since the subject matter of dispute is a definite matter of public importance, the Union government is required to take appropriate action without least possible delay.”105

    The Manipur government appealed the Gauhati High Court order to protect its right to set up such inquiries in the interest of “public order,” which is a state government responsibility, saying that incidental encroachment during the course of the inquiry into the activities of the armed forces should not oust the jurisdiction of the state government. Manorama’s family’s also appealed the order. Agreeing that under the AFSPA, the armed forces were deployed “in the aid of civil power,” the family submitted that:

    Merely because the State of Manipur has been declared a disturbed area under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, can it be said that all actions of the security forces, including rape, torture and killing of unarmed citizens will fall within the definition of ‘in aid of civil power’ as set out in section 3 of the Act?106

    The Assam Rifles also filed an appeal saying that since the Manipur government did not have legal authority to establish the inquiry commission, the report should be considered invalid.

    Since these appeals are still pending at the Gauhati High Court, the Upendra Commission’s findings on the circumstances leading to Manorama’s death have not been tabled before any authority. Thus, no action has been taken against the perpetrators based on the commission’s findings.

    The court of inquiry instituted by the Assam Rifles concluded on July 27, 2004 but the report was not made public.107 Major SD Goswami, defense spokesman in Imphal, only said that, “There were some lapses by the Assam Rifles personnel in the implementation of the instructions by army authorities for such operations. We are holding further enquiries and anyone found guilty will be dealt with severely.”108

    The court of inquiry could not be concluded until forensic tests had been completed. Once the laboratory sent a report that semen had been found on Manorama’s clothes indicating sexual assault, the army ordered DNA testing to identify the perpetrators. Over 30 personnel of 17th Assam Rifles including two majors provided blood samples for DNA testing.109

    There are unconfirmed reports that a major and four others were accused in the killing at the court of inquiry.110 There is no information from the army on whether the five men were found guilty or whether they were punished.

    Manorama’s family is still waiting, four years after her death, for her killers to be identified and punished. A shrine, built in Manorama’s memory outside the family house, is still standing. But the banners are faded; her photographs covered in dust. Said Dolendro Singh, her brother:

    It is very difficult. Obviously we are facing a lot of disappointment. It’s been three, four years. Even the people’s movement has died down. But we remain in prolonged mourning.111

    56 “Writ Petition No. 5187,” Col. Jagmohan Singh and others Vs The State of Manipur & Others, Gauhati High Court, August 19, 2004. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

    57 “Statement moved by Assam Rifles of the summary of events as to the factual matrix per records before the Commission of the Judicial Inquiry into the death of Kumari Th. Manorama Devi,” August 2, 2004. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

    58 Human Rights Watch interview with Thangjan Dolendro Singh, brother of Manorama Devi, Bamon Kampu Mayai Leikai, Imphal East District, Manipur, February 23, 2008.

    59 Human Rights Watch interviews with journalists and human rights lawyers, Manipur, February 2008.

    60 Geeta Pandey, “Woman at the centre of Manipur Storm,” BBC News, August 27, 2004 (accesed August 25, 2008).

    61 “Writ Petition No. 5187,” Col. Jagmohan Singh and 0thers Vs The State of Manipur & Others.

    62 Human Rights Watch interview with Thangjan Dolendro Singh, February 23, 2008.

    63 “Manorama’s Mom Testifies,” The Sangai Express, August 1, 2004, (accessed April 17, 2008).

    64 “Arrested Woman Found Brutally Killed,” The Sangai Express, July 11, 2004, (accessed April 16, 2008).

    65 Human Rights Watch interview with Thangjan Dolendro Singh, February 23, 2008.

    66 Arrest Memo provided by 17th Assam Rifles, July 11, 2004. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

    67 “No Claims Certificate” signed by Manorama’s relatives. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

    68 “Writ Petition 5187,” Col. Jagmohan Singh and others Vs The State of Manipur & Others.

    69 Ibid.

    70 Ibid.

    71 “Judgement and Order,” Writ Petition 5187 of 2004, Col. Jagmohan Singh and others Vs The State of Manipur & Others and Writ Petition 6187 of 2004, JC-172262F Nb Digambar Datta and others vs The State of Manipur and others, Gauhati High Court, June 23, 2005. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

    72 “Police Contradict AR report,” The Sangai Express, August 4, 2004, (accessed April 17, 2008). “Major Listed in Accused List With 4 Others,” The Sangai Express, August 5, 2004, (accessed April 17, 2008).

    73 Human Rights Watch interview with Meihoubam Rakesh, lawyer representing Manorama’s family, Imphal, February 22, 2008. See also “Writ Appeal 5,” Smt Thangjan Ongbi Khumaneiei Devi & Another vs JC-17226F Nb. Sub Digambar Datta & Others, filed by Manorama’s family to appeal against the judgment and order of Gauhati High Court, January 21, 2006. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

    74 “Family Still Refuse to Take Back Body,” The Sangai Express, July 22, 2004, (accessed April 17, 2008).

    75 “Police Perform Last Rites for Manorama,” The Sangai Express, July 24, 2004, (accessed April 17, 2008).

    76 Thangjam Manorama: Fact Sheet,, August 19, 2004, (accessed April 16, 2008).

    77 Sapam Aruna, “Manoroma’s Family: Waiting Forever,” Kangalonline, (accessed April 16, 2008).

    78 Sushanta Talukdar, “Manipur’s Protest,” Frontline, vol. 21, Issue 17, August 14-27, 2004, (accessed April 16, 2008).

    79 “Protest Erupt Over Custodial Death of Woman, Many Nail AR,” The Sangai Express, July 12, 2004, (accessed April 16, 2008).

    80 “Women Give Vent to Naked Fury in Front of 17 AR in Kangla,” The Sangai Express, July 15, 2005, (accessed April 16, 2008)

    81 Human Rights Watch interview with L. Gyaneshori, President, Thangmeiban Apunba Nupi Lup, Imphal, February 26, 2008.

    82 “Agitators Set Fire to Govt Offices in Manipur,” Press Trust of India, July 18, 2004, (accessed April 16, 2008).

    83 “Protests Spread Beyond Imphal,” The Sangai Express, July 17, 2004, (accessed April 16, 2008).

    84 “Self Immolation Bid Near Manipur CM’s Office,” Press Trust of India, July 24, 2004, (accessed April 16, 2008).

    85 G. Vinayak, “I have Taken a Risk: Manipur CM,”, August 12, 2004, (accessed April 16, 2008).

    86 “Self Immolation: Pebam Chittaranjan Dead,” Press Trust of India, August 16, 2004, (accessed April 16, 2008).

    87 “Panel to Look Into Armed Forces Act,” Press Trust of India, November 2, 2004, (accessed April 16, 2008).

    88 Siddharth Varadarajan, “Anybody Remember Manipur?” The Hindu, June 29, 2005, (accessed March 7, 2008).

    89 Secretariat Home Department, Government of Manipur, Notification, July 12, 2004. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

    90 Order Sheets of the Upendra Commision. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

    91 “Commission Rejects AR Plea,” The Sangai Express, August 7, 2004, (accessed April 17, 2008).

    92 Human Rights Watch interview with Justice C. Upendra Singh, Imphal, February 26, 2008.

    93 “Writ Petition 5817,” Col. Jagmohan Singh and others Vs The State of Manipur & Others.

    94 Ibid.

    95 Sushanta Talukdar, “Manipur’s Protest,” Frontline, vol. 21, Issue 17, August 14-27, 2004, (accessed April 16, 2008).

    96 “Manipur: Semen Found On Manorama’s Clothes,” Press Trust of India, August 26, 2004, (accessed April 16, 2008).

    97 G. Vinayak, “Arrest Assam Rifles Personnel,”, August 27, 2004, (accessed April 16, 2008).

    98 “Writ petition 5817,” Col. Jagmohan Singh and others Vs The State of Manipur & Others and Writ Petition 6187 of 2004, JC-172262F Nb Digambar Datta and others vs The State of Manipur and others.

    99 The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, sec. 6, (accessed April 17, 2008).

    100 “Writ petition 5817,” Col. Jagmohan Singh and others Vs The State of Manipur & Others.

    101 “Gauhati HC For In-Camera Hearing,” The Sangai Express, August 28, 2004, (accessed April 17, 2008).

    102 Human Rights Watch interview with C. Upendra Singh, February 26, 2008.

    103 “Judgment and Order,” Writ Petition 5187 of 2004, Col. Jagmohan Singh and others Vs The State of Manipur & Others and Writ Petition 6187 of 2004, Nb Digambar Datta and others vs The State of Manipur and others, Gauhati High Court, June 23, 2005. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

    104 Ibid.

    105 Ibid.

    106 “Wri Appeal 5,” Smt Thangjan Ongbi Khumaneiei Devi & Another vs JC-17226F Nb. Sub Digambar Datta & Others, filed by Manorama’s family to appeal against the judgment and order of Gauhati High Court, January 21, 2006. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

    107 “Army Probe Concludes With A Rider,” The Sangai Express, July 27, 2004, (accessed April 17, 2008).

    108 Geeta Pandey, “Midnight Knock and a Killing Too Far,” BBC News, August 12, 2004, (accessed April 16, 2008)

    109 “Remaining two AR men hand over blood samples,” The Sangai Express, September 6, 2004, (accessed April 17, 2008).

    110 “Major Listed in Accused List With 4 Others,” The Sangai Express, August 5, 2004, (accessed April 17, 2008).

    111 Human Rights Watch interview with Dolendro Singh, February 2, 2008.