MHRC : From 1998 to 2023 Anything but smooth
To many, human rights, correction, its violation is central to the identity of Manipur and not without reason. It was with a reason why a young lady, Irom Sharmila launched her marathonesque hunger strike sometime from November 2000 to 2016 demanding the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act after the Malom massacre of 2000 in which 10 innocent bystanders were shot dead by troops of Assam Rifles. If Sharmila symbolised the grit and tenacity of a young lady to make her stand known against the draconian Army Act, then 12 women gathered and gave a new definition to the understanding of human rights violation or the excesses committed under AFSPA when they disrobed and staged a nude protest in front of Kangla, which then housed the Assam Rifles. The nude protest came just 24 hours after the lifeless, battered and bullet riddled body of Thangjam Manorama was recovered after she was picked up by Assam Rifles men the night before from her residence some time in 2004. The two cases cited here are not the only such cases, for there have been other mass killings too such as RIMS massacre of 1995, Heirangoithong killings, Tonsen Lamkhai, etc and these are just some examples that come to mind and add the cases of enforced disappearances and herein lies another story of Manipur that have been told and retold down the years but which have been quickly forgotten the next moment. Another story of Manipur and this was how this story reverberated in the Supreme Court just a few years back and it was with a reason why the Santosh Hegde Committee thundered ‘How can a 15 year old boy be a terrorist ?’ Human rights or its violation, as stated earlier here, then forms part and parcel of the story that go along with the understanding of Manipur and it was against this reality that the Manipur Human Rights Commission was formed in 1998 with former Chief Justice of Sikkim High Court Justice Surendra Nath Bhargava as Chairman and four other members. Responding to the reality and in line with what was being taken up in other parts of the country and the world and obviously the need for such a Commission as articulated and demanded by a number of human rights organisations, such as Civil Liberties and Human Rights Organisation (CLAHRO) and others and it is significant to note that much before the MHRC was formed, Manipur already had some notable human rights organisations such as CLAHRO, Committee on Human Rights (COHR), Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR), Kuki Movement for Human Rights (KMHR) etc. Came rather late and the journey of the MHRC since its inception in 1998 to 2023 has been anything but smooth.
After more than 5 months, a fresh lease of life seems to have been given to the MHRC with the appointment of a retired Judge of the High Court of Tripura Justice Utpalendu Bikas Saha as the new Chairman and Kangjam Khagendra Singh as a Member of the Commission. The fresh appointments come after Acting Chairperson of MHRC Khaidem Mani relinquished office on August 31, 2022 and significant to note that prior to the retirement a PIL was filed in the High Court of Manipur that the posts going to be vacant in the MHRC should be filled. The PIL was filed in June, 2022 much ahead of the retirement of Khaidem Mani. So in effect it looks more like a case of the appointment being made at the instance of the law Court and not for any reason that human rights figures high on the agenda of the Government and this has been the case ever since the Commission was formed back in 1998. A recap may just be in line and in tune with the present reality. After the first term of the Commission ended in 2003, that is five years after it was formed in 1998, MHRC was left without a Chairperson for 2 years. It was only at the instance of the then Imphal bench of Gauhati High Court that a Chairperson and Members were appointed. Again after the office tenure of the second Commission wound up in 2010, MHRC was left without a Chairperson and regular Members till 2018, when the BJP led Government in its first innings at Imphal appointed Khaidem Mani, not as a regular Chairperson but as Acting Chairperson on August 31, 2018. After Khaidem Mani’s term ended three years later, that is on August 31, 2022, MHRC remained only in name for five months, before the new Chairman and one Member were named in the Commission. Says something profound about how MHRC has been sidelined in a place which is synonymous with human rights violations and human rights crusaders.