September 29, 2020
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The Death Of Innocence

The kidnap and murder of an eight-year-old school girl, Lungnila Elizabeth, leads to reflection cutting across all barriers, even those between the Naga Hills and the Meitei Valley. The message is loud and clear: there is no rationalising this barbar

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The Death Of Innocence

The outrageous kidnap and murder of an eight-year-old school girl, Lungnila Elizabeth, daughter of Francis Ngajokpa, Manipur's Minister for the General Administration Department (GAD) and Taxation, has exposed, among other things, the extent of moral degradation Manipur has undergone in the past decade as a consequence of the insurgency-related breakdown of law and order, and the degree to which these insurgencies have strayed from their ideological and political projections. 

Kidnapping for ransom, especially of children, is the latest manifestation of this abject moral degradation. A decade ago, nobody would have thought such a thing possible in the state, but not any more. Over the past two years alone, there have been a series of such abductions. Among the most prominent of these:

  • On December 9, 2002, the youngest son of former Chief Minister Reishang Keishing was abducted by the Kuki Liberation Army (KLA), which demanded a ransom of Rupees 1,100,000. He was released on December 11, 2002.

  • Deputy Telecom District Manager, J. Lunkim was abducted on February 18, 2003, by the KLA and was released on February 23 after a hefty ransom was paid to the outfit.

  • On March 23, 2003, German non-governmental organisation (NGO) activist Wolfgang Heinrich was abducted by the KLA, which demanded a ransom of 10 million rupees. Wolfang was subsequently released on April 9, 2003.

  • Manoj Sethi, a cloth merchant from Imphal city was abducted by the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) on April 29, 2003, which demanded that Sethi clear up five years of 'tax' to the outfit. Sethi refused and was killed.

  • The general manager of the Agricultural & Processed Food Export Development Authority (APFEDA), a Central funding agency under the Union Trade and Commerce Ministry, was abducted by the People's United Liberation Front (PULF) on April 26, 2003, on the Moreh road, but succeeded in escaping the outfit's clutches on May 5, 2003.

  • The General Manager of the Integrated Cooperative Development Programme (ICDP), Imphal West, T. Mani Singh, was abducted by the United Kuki Liberation Front (UKLF) on October 20, 2003, and was released on October 29.

While no official confirmation is available, most releases of the kidnap victims occur after payment of the very sizeable ransom demanded.

Most cases of abduction invite public protests by civil society organisations in the state. This time around, however, protests and agitations crossed all barriers, as common people not only hit the streets, demanding the release of the girl, but also joined in search operations to locate her and her abductors. 

The dividing line between the Naga dominated Hills and the Meitei dominated Valley disappeared, with organisations cutting across ethnic lines condemning the incident. It is ironical that the child was killed in spite of the show of unity and solidarity and even after the ransom amount of Rs One million was paid in two instalments (leads now suggest that at least one instalment of Rs. 500,000 was demanded and paid by unsuspecting parents after the child had been killed).

It would be a mistake to think of this incident as an aberration, despite its greater shock-value, since the culprits decided to abduct and kill an innocent child. The incident, on the contrary, is a reflection on the continuing culture of violence and intimidation that has engulfed Manipur. 

Howsoever heinous this latest crime may appear to be, it is no different from the crimes perpetrated by the multiplicity of extremist organisations in the state. Notwithstanding the symbolic criticisms of the incident by some underground groups, the incident must be analysed against the backdrop of an ongoing carnage that does not distinguish between the child and the adult, between combatant and non-combatant, between innocence and culpability.

Figures from the Union Ministry of Home Affairs suggest that cases of abduction (mostly for ransom) have risen consistently over the years. In year 2000, 32 cases of abduction were reported, going up to 35 in 2001 and to 67 in 2002. Both the Valley and Hill based outfits have mastered the technique, not only to fill up their coffers, but also to acquire the image of 'cleansers of the system'. Groups like the KYKL, in recent times, have been involved in a number of abductions in a purported bid to 'get rid of corruption', mostly in the education department.

The increased belligerence of the insurgent groups has been matched by a continuing decadence in the political culture in the state, with a resultant loss of legitimacy for the administration - a cycle that has ensured a perpetual descent into chaos. A recent incident dramatically reflects the lawlessness in the state and the abject surrender of administrators to the forces of terror. 

This year, on August 30, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer and a serving commissioner in the Department of Education, I.S. Laishram gave himself up to the KYKL, after the outfit declared him an offender for having taken money from a college teacher. Laishram was 'tried' by the group for seven days and was released on September 7 on the condition that he would take voluntary retirement. The state government by then had decided to suspend the person for not having obeyed to the official order and not to respond to the diktats of the insurgents.

The Elizabeth episode has also exposed the absolute sloth of the crime fighting departments of the government. There has been deplorable inefficiency in intelligence gathering and coordination between police departments and intelligence agencies. It is ironical that, as the search continued for the child, two of the top police officials in the state, one of whom is currently the acting police chief in the state, refused to talk to each other. It is evident that such a situation blocked all paths of intelligence sharing, ensuring that the girl remained untraceable till her body was recovered in a small pond near a paddy field in an Imphal outskirt. 

Vital leads like the telephone number from where the abductors made the ransom demand, which was recorded on a Call Identifying Device, were not acted upon. In fact, the search for the girl was suspended for a couple of days after it began for fear of reprisals by the abductors. Serious questions have already been raised over the intelligence apparatus as well as on the issue of poor coordination between different wings of the police force. Rivalry between the civil police, the Manipur Rifles and the India Reserve Battalion (IRB) units, from the Superintendent of Police (SP) and Commanding Officer (CO) level on and downwards, is an open secret in the state.

For too long has violence been rationalised by political rhetoric, and this is now blowing up in the face of Manipuri society. As a determination to hunt down Elizabeth's killers gains momentum, there is an equal need to take a hard look at the processes of the legitimisation of violence. As long as the tolerance of political violence remains, such incidents are bound to recur. Manipur must now be completely sanitized of the scourge of violence.

Elizabeth's case has woken everybody up to the grim realities ahead. Never before have the different communities been united, as they were in their outrage on this issue. Elizabeth is a Maram Naga, but that has not made a difference to non-Naga who joined the public protests against the crime. In Elizabeth's tragedy, ironically, a way emerges for Manipur's redemption. Beyond political rhetoric and sectarian slogans, basic humanity can still unite.

Pradip Phanjoubam is Editor, Imphal Free Press, Imphal. Bibhu Prasad Routray, is Acting Director, ICM Database & Documentation Centre, Guwahati. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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