Thursday, July 21, 2016

Raghu Karnad and Grace Jajo - Confessions of a killer policeman

When he began to kill, Thounaojam Herojit never intended to tell his wife – let alone the whole country. After an execution, he would go home and wait by the corrugated tin gate for her to bring him a towel and bucket. He bathed, right there in the lane, as their children did, to keep the pollution of death from entering their house. Each time, he would ask her to wash his uniform, even though his clothes looked clean. Eventually she caught on.

The worst days were ahead of Herojit – these were merely the most dangerous. He was a young police constable in Manipur, a province in the north-east of India bloodied by decades of separatist insurgency and state reprisal. But he was also a commando  part of an elite unit raised to fight the insurgents – and he was set to become their most effective executioner.

At first, he kept a tally of his kills in his head: “10, 11, 12 …” But his job, eliminating suspected militants, soon became routine. In Manipur, high in the welter of green hills that blur the border with Myanmar, nearly any young man could be a suspect, and there was no time to take them all to court.
It became a habit for Herojit to make his victims face him. He looked them in the eye when he pulled the trigger. Later he kept a diary, recording dates and names, and marking them: killed. Eventually there was a second notebook, then a third.

He never imagined that one day he might answer for his actions, or find himself feeling like one more victim of this war. At the time, Herojit recalled, he felt no qualms about casual executions. There was one day when his unit was tipped off about a rebel cadre hiding out in the hills outside the state capital, Imphal. Driving up in an armed convoy was not an option – they would be spotted from above, and the men would disappear. Instead, Herojit and his team went in a truck, dressed in plain clothes, looking like a road‑repair gang.

As they left the long scab of orange brick that was Imphal, the view opened out on to paddy fields and glossy banana groves, and soon they were climbing into the ring of great hills that encircle the Imphal valley. At the top, they pulled over and idled. They had arranged for an armed convoy to follow at a distance. Once that conspicuously came into view, seven nervous young men appeared and came over to their truck, eager to hitch a ride and escape the police.

Herojit smiled at them. “Which party are you?” “U,” they confessed, meaning the United National Liberation Front, one of the strongest among dozens of groups fighting the government. “Well, we’re PLA,” Herojit replied, meaning the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur – fellow fighters, at least in that moment, when the common enemy was men in uniforms. Get in the truck, another cop said, there’s a place up the road where we can ambush the police convoy. The men passed up their AK-47s and climbed in, grateful – until they found themselves looking down the snout of Herojit’s pistol. “Once they were all inside, we told them, ‘We’re police, but be calm, we just want to talk,’” Herojit recalled.

The seven men stayed subdued, and the truck drove to a predetermined spot on the hillside – where Herojit shot them dead. Afterwards, as always, a recovery van carted the bodies to the morgue. The police issued a statement: the commandos had been attacked, and had fought back, killing seven insurgents in the armed “encounter”. That was the routine. It was always on orders, Herojit says, either direct instructions – or the implicit, standing order that in this, the fourth decade of armed rebellion in Manipur, commandos were not to waste time making arrests.

This was just how it went, in provinces all along India’s borders, where armed separatist movements unleashed conflicts that have cost tens of thousands of lives. Kashmir – which has erupted again this summer – is the most well-known, but the earliest insurgencies in India persist in the far reaches of the north-east, in the small and mountainous states on the other side of Bangladesh, where the authority of the Indian state had always been suspect. Militant groups launched attacks on the army and government – and the state fought back with indiscriminate reprisals, which at times meant declaring an open season on young local men.

For Herojit, it was only ever a matter of revenge. Convinced of his impunity, he became one of India’s most seasoned extra-judicial killers. Until this year, when he became something rarer still: a killer cop who wanted to confess.

In January of 2016, in a secret meeting with select journalists in Imphal, Herojit made two disclosures. First, he admitted that he was guilty of the execution of an unarmed young man in the middle of a busy market in 2009 – his final and most notorious killing. His other confession was an off-the-record remark, which the journalists could not print, but it was far more shocking: the precise number of killings that he had personally carried out. The total was well over one hundred.
After these revelations, Herojit went silent. But in April, he agreed to meet, and speak for the first time, on the record, about his entire career as a police commando – and how he decided that it was time to confess. Our initial meetings took place in a house in the south of Imphal, where Herojit was being sheltered by distant relatives, the only people who had heard his full story... read more