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The Horror of Operation Bluebird, 1987: Oinam, Manipur

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Situated in the Bishnupur district of Manipur, the small town of Oinam –predominantly populated by the Naga tribe ‘Poumai’ – was unaware of the horror that was looming over it, back in July 1987.

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We are quite familiar with the fact that whenever a conflict evolves between paramilitary/military forces and separatist or insurgency groups or any other external/internal threat, it is always the civilians who pay the price. We are also familiar with numerous cases of brutality in the hands of police, paramilitary and military forces; a number of such cases have recently resurfaced during the COVID-19 pandemic. The repercussion of ‘Operation Bluebird’ is one such case, which still haunts the villagers of Oinam.

On the 9th of July 1987, members of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) raided the camp of Assam Rifle Outpost – located near Oinam, in broad daylight. The unprepared soldiers were surrounded and taken aim at. In the crossfire, 9 soldiers were killed, 3 were critically injured and all of their arms and ammunition were looted. The troupe of NSCN forced the villagers of Oinam to carry the loot and later vanished into the jungle with it.

In the days following, the enraged soldiers carried out a counter-insurgency operation on 11th July 1987 to recover their arms, under the codename ‘Operation Bluebird’. Although the operation was aimed at the NSCN, the soldiers avenged their attack by torturing the villagers of Oinam, and other nearby villages. Without any concrete evidence, the soldiers provided the mere justification of the atrocities based on the assumption that the villagers were equally a part of the planned attack.

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Within 3 months of launching the operation, Assam Rifle soldiers committed numerous human rights violations. Men, women, and children – regardless of age – fell prey to torture through electrocution, starvation, physical/sexual abuse, illegal arrest and imprisonment, forced labour, and much more. Pregnant women were forced to give birth in front of a team of soldiers, small children carried goods heavier than their body weight. Men were lynched and hanged upside-down, girls were raped, while many others were often buried alive. More than 100 homes were either burned down or looted, while schools and churches were dismantled and destroyed. 27 villagers succumbed to the tortures and were killed mercilessly, while the rest of them continue to live with the trauma.

However, the villagers did not keep their voices at bay and reached out to the Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) to take the issue to the court. In October 1987, the NPMHR filed a petition against the Assam Rifle soldiers in the Guwahati High Court. This was one of the first cases of oppressed civilians taking the security forces of India – the oppressors – to the court. But, the case moved back and forth between the Guwahati High Court and Manipur High Court.

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This eventually led to the loss of parts of the 12 volumes (1000 pages) evidence record of the case, resulting in no substantive judgment being made. It has been 29 years since the last hearing back in 1992, and it seems that justice for the nightmarish tortures faced by people of Oinam, and other villages, has been adjourned indefinitely. Every year since 1988, the people of Oinam have taken up the initiative of observing the 9th of July as the ‘Day of Prayer’ for remembering and praying for peace for the people who were killed. They adopted the name ‘Onae Reh Dah’, which literally means ‘The Great Battle of Oinam’, for this day.

While the people of Oinam live another day without justice, similar cases of barbarism continue to prevail unabashedly. Ironically, such brutality in the hands of paramilitary/military forces has increased since the implementation of the Armed Forces Special Power Act (1958), in the North-Eastern States and Jammu & Kashmir.

An act, which was supposed to contain the ‘disturbed areas’, is now producing more disturbed areas by carrying out Draconian and inhumane brutalities. Numerous human rights activists and organizations – such as Amnesty International, United Nations, etc. – has asked the Indian Government to revoke AFSPA, based on its invalidity and unconstitutional nature. Yet, it remains.

Written by: Ayushi Sharma, The North-Eastern Chronicle

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