A Tribute to EEVFAM: Human Rights Defenders in Manipur

Amnesty International India
11 July 2018 6:25 pm

For decades, the state of Manipur has witnessed horrific instances of alleged extrajudicial executions by security forces. More than 1528 cases have been documented between 1979 and 2012. Stories of mothers who waited for their sons who never came home and stories of young widows who found bullet-ridden bodies of their husbands, are disturbingly common. In all these cases, justice remains elusive.

It is easy to lose hope when violence is commonplace. This makes contributions of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) in Manipur even more remarkable. On 11 July 2009, one such group of HRDs was formed – almost by accident. Their coming together would be instrumental in the quest for justice in the state. On that day, in Imphal, grieving family members shared their stories of losing loved ones to extra judicial executions. The outpouring of collective grief was a cathartic moment for many. Everyone agreed that they should meet more often to support each other. These were the first steps that lead to the formation of the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association, Manipur or EEVFAM. In the nine years of its existence, EEVFAM’s contribution to the human rights movement in Manipur has been invaluable.

Manipur has a long history of fighting for human rights, but EEVFAM stands out for attempting to bring an end to impunity by pursuing judicial remedies. EEVFAM has taken a lead in documenting the human rights violations by security forces that seem to be routinized in the state. On EEVFAM’s 9th Anniversary, their work deserves a tribute from the larger human rights community.

Two indomitable women, Renu Takhellambam and Edina Yaikhom lead EEVFAM today. Both of them overcame their grief over losing their husbands to alleged extra judicial killings and became leaders in their own right. EEVFAM provides a platform for supporting families of victims. They also provide small loans to families. But most importantly, the group has turned the notion of ‘victimhood’ on its head.

EEVFAM and Human Rights Alert filed a public interest litigation before the Supreme Court in 2012, seeking investigations into 1528 cases of alleged extrajudicial executions documented in Manipur. In July 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate over 90 alleged extrajudicial executions in Manipur. This investigation is ongoing. However, as a result of these investigations, HRDs from EEVFAM are increasingly under threat. These threats include security forces ransacking their houses, threatening them with dire consequences including arrests without warrants, and worse. But, these HRDs are not stepping back in their fight for justice. They remain undeterred and undaunted.

Often, when we hear of a campaign claiming individual rights, we associate it with the faces of victims and the challenges they face in their path to justice. However, we forget that the HRDs who take up their cause are equally susceptible to deadly threats and harassment. Sometimes HRDs are themselves victims of human rights violations, or have faced violence or suffered the trauma of losing a loved one.

The HRDs from EEVFAM have increasingly fallen prey to unscrupulous methods adopted by government authorities and others who are trying to either silence them or discourage their participation in the fight for justice. The threats HRDs receive can be potentially deadly. In 2017, Okram Nutankumar, a HRD and an active participant in EEVFAM’s activities was fired at from outside his house. In another similar incident, paramilitary and state police personnel vandalised Salima Memcha’s house at 5:30 am on 7 April 2018. Salima is another HRD from EEVFAM. They threatened her and warned her that they were keeping a close eye on her. This was the same day that Salima was due to give a statement to the Criminal Investigation Department on her husband’s death in an alleged extrajudicial execution.

There have been numerous other instances just like these, which have left the HRDs in Manipur fearful and discouraged in continuing their vital work to attain justice for victims of extrajudicial executions. Babloo Loitongbam, Executive Director of Human Rights Alert, said, “There is a pattern in these attacks as it is targeted against those who are working with EEVFAM. It is an attempt to unnerve HRDs in Manipur.”

Therefore, it is crucial to take cognizance of threats faced by these HRDs and their courage even amidst such peril. Moreover, it is important to understand that these threats are indeed real and imminent. Without the support of these HRDs many victims will not be able to negotiate legal processes. For many, EEVFAM is also essential in their healing and overcoming traumas of loss. The biggest contribution of EEVFAM according to Renu Takhellbam is that they were able to “bring a smile back to the faces of the victim families”.

Threats and attacks against HRDs from EEVFAM, demonstrate how their voices and their contributions are under attack. On this day of 11 July, we must remember their exemplary courage and stand in solidarity with these exceptionally brave individuals.

By Harshita Shroff and Likhita Banerji. Harshita is currently interning at Amnesty International India, Likhita is a campaigner and researcher with the Individuals at Risk team.