The controversial issue of custodial death is not a recent phenomenon and it is not limited to any particular country. In India for that matter in the north eastern state of Manipur, many people including innocent ones have lost their lives due to custodial atrocities like rampant use of third degree torture methods by police during interrogation as a part of their profession. Besides, there are many unreported cases of custodial deaths- both judicial and police. Custodial atrocities and deaths can be attributed to many causal factors such as excessive use of power by police, clout of high ranking police officials and bureaucrats and their prying nature towards other’s profession, collusion of the rich and influential making erring police officials to dance to their tunes so that they may go unpunished evading evidence, inadequate training, lack of knowledge and experience in scientific methods of interrogation, and lack of effective supervision of police stations by superior officers. In this context, one can find that Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dated December 10, 1948 proclaims that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. Subsequently, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 reiterates the same by treating a treaty-obligation under its Article 7 for the states parties to it that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In particular, no one shall be subjected without his free consent to medical or scientific experimentation”. This rights’ covenant prohibits, leave alone torture in custody or captivity, even research experiments sans the consent of the subject involved. The Indian Constitution in its Article 21 provides for basic right to life which in many ways includes guarantee against torture of a person in police custody. Then, what if life is snuffed out in the police custody itself?

The conflict-ridden northeast India is no stranger to this menace. In the region, the insurgency hit-Manipur has been one of the states from where cases of illegal detention, custodial violence and custodial deaths had been reported with regularity in the last few decades. Historically speaking, there was a huge debate in the Rajya Sabha over the custodial deaths of some Manipuri youths in the 1990s. During the last four years, three persons died in police custody, the latest being the custodial death of one Manipur Police constable SM Manjur Ahmed, son of late Mv. Bashir Ahmed, a resident of Yairipok Ningthounai in Imphal East District of Manipur.

Cases of custodial death in Manipur is not uncommon, but the death of a policeman in police custody makes it a strange and disturbing one, invariably raising many questions and allegations of excessive custodial torture. Some reasonable aspects can be essentially highlighted here regarding the custodial atrocities and death of Mr. Manjur Ahmed that need to be investigated categorically and phenomenally. The pertinent enquiries that are important being: What was the ‘circumstantial background’ leading to the death of a police constable in police custody? Was it a fit case of custodial killing? If so, why was a ‘mere suspect’ killed in police custody? Was Manjur Ahmed used as a scapegoat to cover-up the wrongdoings in the escape of the under trial prisoner Thokchom Nando Meitei, the extremist leader of a faction of a proscribed armed outfit operating in Manipur? Were there any suspicious roles performed by Manjur in connection with Mr. Nando’s escape? Was he blamed for mistakes committed by other ‘culprits in uniform’? Or, was it a ploy to protect the ‘real culprits’ in the police department or otherwise? Could there be linkages between his custodial death and any kind of possible personal enmity or ploy of different individuals or groups? Has the justice for his custodial death been delivered?

To answer these queries is fundamental in delivering legal justice. Any suggestion about a possible link between constable Manjur and under trial Nando’s escape from the well-guarded hospital ward seems perceptibly a bit outlandish. Manjur Ahmed was deployed at the Special Ward of the JNIMS Hospital-Reserve Line located at Porompat in Imphal East district as the head-in-charge of the security guard of MLA Yamthung Haokip, who was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in connection with the missing of some arms from state armory. On the other hand, Mr. Nando, an accused in the case of the brutal rape and murder of Lungnila Elizabeth, daughter of former Education Minister Francis Ngajokpa in the then Okram Ibobi Singh-led Congress government in 2003, was kept for treatment in the JNIMS Hospital’s Male Ortho Ward since November last year. The controversial hypothesis about a connection between a security guard stationed at JNIMS’s Special Ward and a hardened criminal being treated in Male Ortho Ward seems wild which calls for a thorough and foolproof investigation.

Mr. Nando was known for his notorious activities including extortion as was evident from the fact that the police tried to track down the phone number retrieved from the ‘demand letter’ which was put in an envelope together with one bullet of AK-47 rifle and stealthily inserted underneath the shutter of Nur Jewellery Shop located at Hatta allegedly by a faction of the armed outfit Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) for extorting Rs. 5 lakh. Tracking the phone number, police raided the Male Ortho Ward on 12th March 2019 and found that Nando had been using many mobile phones including one android phone which was also used by Kaphulong, a Village Defence Force (VDF) personnel deployed in the four-member team headed by ASI Laishram Kesho Singh as the security guard of Nando. Why and how a security personnel Kaphulong could use an accused Nando’s phone is seemingly clueless. Photos and phone numbers of Jail SP, staff members and Manjur were recovered from Nando’s android phone. On that day itself, Mr. Manjur was suspended after Additional SP Roni Singh of Imphal East Police filed a report on the basis of the recovery of photos and voice call recordings from Nando’s phone. Police also arrested Nando’s father who admitted that Nando while being treated at the JNIMS hospital indulged in some criminal activities like extortion.

Manjur reportedly admitted that he had telephonic conversation with Nando in about 17 voice calls because he was acting on the advice of some senior officials who asked him to try to win Nando’s confidence so that he might extract extortion-related information from the under trial. Who were the ‘some senior officials’ who abetted Manjur to do so? What are the contents of the voice call recordings? Why was the IO seemed to be hiding the actual findings from the analysis of the voice calls? Do the contents of the conversations between Manjur and Nando establish any common interests between them? Why was he killed in police custody if nothing was confirmed from the analysis of the voice calls? The allegations against Manjur apart, is it possible that Manjur knew about links between Nando and other police officials in organizing criminal activities in some way or other that necessitated his custodial elimination? Is it seemingly possible that there might have been some kind of connections between the other security personnel and the under trial Nando? This possibility is seemingly ruled out as is evident from the investigation angle that the police have adopted in this case so far. Nevertheless, this aspect of the killing of a policeman in police custody needs to be crucially examined for solving the unique custodial mystery.

Nando escaped from JNIMS’s Male Ortho Ward on 26th March 2019 and Mr. Manjur was summoned for interrogation on the following day and subsequently was arrested for his alleged role in Mr. Nando’s escape. Ironically, the immediate causal factor for his arrest was the mere charge that there was a photo of him on Nando’s android phone and they had telephonic conversations. These pieces of ‘evidence’ used by police as the basis of the charge seemed quite far-fetched considering Manjur’s plain statement that he had sent the photograph to the mobile phone of Mr. Nanaobi, a VDF personnel deployed under him as security guard of MLA Yamthung Haokip only to convey the message that he would not be able to come for duty as he was suffering from diarrhoea and got admitted to the Public Hospital at Hatta. Manjur was clueless and perplexed as to how and why the photo sent to Nanaobi’s phone at Special Ward could be there in Nando’s phone at Male Ortho Ward of the hospital. Obviously, any charge of Manjur’s involvement in the under trial’s escape seems quite irrelevant and irrational since Manjur was already suspended and he was not on duty when Mr. Nando escaped.

Obviously, Kesho Singh being the head of the security guard of Nando was aware about Nando’s criminal activities besides the recovery of incriminating documents including 12 extortion letters along with two mobile phones. But, when statements of Kesho, Kaphulong and other jail staffs were taken, they merely admitted that they knew about the existence of photos in Nando’s phone and about regular meetings between Nando and two girls who came wearing camouflages. None of them revealed the secret shrouding over the existence of various incriminating clues in Nando’s phone. However, seemingly in a damage control move, Kaphulong, Kesho Singh and ASI Lenlanzom Singsom who were in the security team of Nando were also suspended but not arrested.

Manjur was remanded for five days in police custody with SDPO Sankarjeet as the IO and Sub-Inspectors Chingkhui and Roshan as the Assistant IOs of the case. Earlier, the case was handled by ASI Akhtar Hussain as an Assistant IO but he was replaced by Chingkhui and Roshan through the insistence of the SDPO thanks to their allegedly suspicious nature towards Akhtar for being from the minority Pangal community to which Manjur belonged. On 30th March 2019, Manjur was brought to the notorious and much-feared Joint Interrogation Cell (JIC), located at Imphal West Commando Complex, Pandol. He was allegedly tortured so brutally by the interrogating team led by JIC Inspector T. Sanatomba Singh of CID (SB) that even a ‘cane stick’ was stuffed into his mouth. Even some of the personnel stationed at JIC reportedly gave eye witness accounts that while torturing Manjur, Sanatomba uttered religious slur even as Manjur cried unbearably evoking Allah’s name. Sanatomba shouted pejoratively, ‘Does your Allah save you from being tortured and beaten?’ Despite that level of custodial torture, Manjur was deprived of even the mandatory regular health check-up and he died on 30th March 2019 in police custody.

The post mortem report confirmed soundly that he was brought to death in police custody through excessive brutal torture and beatings which led to his kidney rupture and other internal injury. This was also evident from the telltale injury marks and bloody bruises visible all over his body. Considering all these facts, it seems to be not a case of custodial death but a brazen case of custodial killing.

Manjur’s custodial death provoked widespread protests all over the state cutting across community lines. The ‘Joint Action Committee (JAC) against the Custodial Killing of Police Constable Manjur Ahmed’ with support from many civil society organizations namely UMMWDO, AMMACO, AMMOCOC, MMOF, AMMSO, and others organized agitations in the form of bandhs and blockades. Describing his death as cold-blooded murder in police custody, they demanded an impartial probe by the CBI to give exemplary punishment to those involved. Government’s announcement of judicial enquiry and suspension of Inspector T. Sanatomba Singh could not pacify the agitating originations which demanded that the case be handed over to the CBI. Eventually, the Government of Manipur gave an assurance that the case would be handed over to the CBI. However, after the lapse of more than four months’ time, the CBI is yet to handle the case despite the government’s claim that necessary procedures had been initiated.

In this case, some of the relevant questions that need be answered are- Why was Manjur selectively arrested and subjected to brutal interrogation at JIC by sparing other personnel like Kesho and Kakhulong who were rather stakeholders in Nando’s escape? Why was the IO absent during Mr. Manjur’s interrogation at JIC despite the fact that conventionally IO should mandatorily be present at the interrogation cell to prevent undue torture? Why was Kakhulong, who used Nando’s phone by being in his proximity not arrested and tortuously interrogated to find out the truth? Was Khaphulong saved by his political masters? Was Manjur’s killing a result of a sinister conspiracy out of animosity to avenge personal grudges? Was the use of brutal interrogation method a ploy to eliminate Manjur and mislead investigation away from the truth as obvious from the exclusion of other possible ‘suspects’ in the Department? Was he killed because they could not obtain their desired confessions from Manjur? Was Manjur a mere victim for being from the minority community or what else? Why are the personnel responsible for Manjur’s death not yet arrested? How can an IO of sub-inspector’s rank be given the charge of investigating such a case which involves higher officers of SP’s rank? For police officials, is it a case of shielding their ‘colleagues’ rather than bringing those responsible for the death of their one colleague to justice? Why does the government seem to follow a delaying tactics in delivering the deserved justice?

The onus of responding to these relevant fact-searching questions lies on the government but it is still illusive and yet to be established as far as the investigation progress of the case is concerned. Delayed justice emboldens custodial perpetrators to behave as if they are above the law of the land. Should the government continue to allow the police to take undue advantage of the law or take up measures for controlling the occurrence of custodial death menace in Manipur for that matter in India? Don’t cases of death in police custody like that of Policeman Manjur Ahmed deserve an early fair justice? Yes, justice delayed is justice denied!

(Md. Chingiz Khan is a Doctoral Candidate, Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)


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