Democracy and Civil Society

“When We Raise the Issue of the Corruption of Local Authorities, It’s the Rebels Who Descend on Us”

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 13, Issue 3, June 2011

Frank van Lierde*

Lawyer and activist Babloo Loitongbam, founder and director of Human Rights Alert, is educating and training local communities in violence-torn Manipur in how to resolve their own conflicts. For decades, India’s Northeastern states have been plagued by insurgency, state violence and endemic ethnic violence. For Loitongbam, the real solution lies in a movement that spirals up from local solutions rather than trickles down from bureaucratic procedures. The Human Rights Alerts curriculum is rooted in the local conflict reality and trains communities to resolve local conflicts independently before they spiral into violent abrogation; to awaken and access sleeping government agencies; to invite the scrutiny and procedures of the international human rights movement and assert citizen’s alternatives to existing conflict resolution systems.

Babloo Loitongbam is not yet forty, but has already crossed a lot of waters. And for the time being he continues to swim. “In twenty-five years, the change we are now working on will perhaps be taking shape gradually.”

As a young student of Meitei origin, he searched in vain for affiliation with student life in New Delhi. After all, it was a different world where a ‘slit-eye’ had no business. Back in Manipur, as an activist, he entered the confrontation with trigger- happy army entities, unpredictable rebel groups and corrupt rulers. With his organization, Human Rights Alert, he finds himself at the leading edge of social dissidence. Internationally he is looking for cooperation in order to get the conflict in Manipur on the map and keep it there. And in between, he is a young father and husband. Armed conflict freezes societies, yet at the same time it is a pressure-cooker making people like Babloo move faster than those in ordinary settings.

Babloo grew up in Manipur, in the seventies and eighties. As a young student his ambitions were not exactly in line with the secure administrative career that his father had in mind for him. He, in the first place, felt like a political animal, someone who wanted to improve the mechanics of power and the practice of justice, not a civil servant who limited himself to conscientious oiling and lubricating. It is understandable that fathers are on their guard for that, certainly in the North-East of India. Also with his first employer, a well-known human rights activist, a similar conflict took place.


“I come from a family that was relatively well off. My father did understand my dreams, after all, he was a lecturer of Political Science and, just like his father, he was aggrieved by what was happening in Manipur. But he did not put himself at the forefront of the political and social resistance movement, something that did appeal to me. He wanted one thing: that I would opt for the safety and security of the Indian Administrative Service.”

By the time Babloo was a teenager, higher education was what lay ahead of him. As a B.Sc first-year student, he travelled to New Delhi. It was his first acquaintance with the ‘mother land’ India and, in some ways, with himself. Living on campus put a lot in motion. But it would not lead to a position in the Service.

“I went to study anthropology in New Delhi. That was a shock. There was drinking, rocking, partying, studying and discussions, but no matter where I went and who I met, hardly any co student had the slightest idea where I came from. I was the slit eye, the ‘chinky’ who came from far away, from a backward, vague and barbaric world. When I told them that this world had already belonged to their own Union of India for half a century, they did not believe me. They simply didn’t know that Manipur existed. I even tried to join the English Debating Club, the cream of the crop amongst student associations. But the brahmanistic elite laughed at me outright. Did I really think that I would ever reach the peak of academia? So I helped to revitalize the MSAD, a Manipuri student association. We once even organized a ‘mini-Olympics’ with Students of the North-East.”

After anthropology came law. “Not only did I want to get to know the world, I also wanted to be able to change things.” And then it all happened so fast. He had two degrees in his pocket, but one meeting with Adrien Zoller from the International Service for Human Rights was what really sent him in the direction he was looking for; that of human rights activism. “Adrien has very much inspired me. Through him I ended up with the Civil Liberties Movement, more specifically the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre; an Indian organization with its head office in New Delhi. I did not work there for very long. One day, I was able to go to Switzerland at the invitation of Zoller, to give human rights training. My boss suspected me of allying myself too closely with the political resistance of rebel groups who, at that time, were also attending the session of the working group on indigenous peoples at Geneva. It was a ridiculous insinuation. I will never take up arms, but that doesn’t mean I think that rebel groups must stay away from the discussion table, nor that shouldn’t fight a battle of a fundamentally political nature. To my boss, the political fight and the fight for human rights were two totally separate paths, whereas I in fact think that you cannot or should not separate the two. To me, politics is not the struggle for power between political parties, nor is it solely a parliamentary or governmental activity. Those are already derivative forms of the original political motive, namely reflecting on and dedicating oneself to an equitable way of coexisting. Anyhow, the disagreement led to a break. In 1996, I left the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre. In that year I also paid a visit to the Dalai Lama with Zoller. That was an inspiring moment. But in fact, I was in a lot of trouble back then: I had to go back to the isolated and torn apart Manipur, my Manipur, without work, without money. I knew which path I wanted to take and I knew that my dad was not happy with the direction I opted for. I was 26.”


Back in Manipur, Babloo continued to do what he had done: working on political reform through human rights. Only now he did so within the physical reality of the armed conflict itself, not in the relative safety of New Delhi. “I set up a documentation centre at the local human rights group in Manipur called the Committee on Human Rights (COHR). We documented, according to strict standards and after accurate verification of sources, the rapes, executions, disappearances, massive population displacements and other violations that armed parties were guilty of. Documenting facts is crucial. It reduces the obscurity which benefits perpetrators of violence and which makes impunity thrive. The result, although not immediate and not spectacular, is unmistakable. For example, Amnesty International has used the fifty-five executions carried out by soldiers, which we had documented in a critical report. And our documentation work has also prompted the UN to formally label the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) as an emergency exercise violating the obligations under article 4(3) of ICCPR.[1] Also the legal proceedings which we have taken in the public interest, the so-called PILs,[2] incited the Supreme Court in 1997 to impose on the army clear dos and don’ts regarding the implementation of the AFSPA. Although in practice this still hasn’t been followed up, we do have an extra instrument with which to exert pressure.”

In 1999 Babloo set up his own organization, Human Rights Alert. The citizen’s initiatives such as those around Sharmila, the processes of conflict transformation that he accompanied in the villages and the distinctly critical analyses with which he had been associated since then, endangered him more than once. He got labeled as ‘state disruptive’, a ‘traitor’ and ‘anti- India’ in the media and was also arrested a couple of times. Meanwhile, his reputation reached beyond the borders of India. His international reputation protects him at times. But then people close to him risk to pay the price, either in the media or in police cells.


How did Babloo deal with these types of charges? Firstly by taking terms such as ‘terrorism’ and ’violence’ out of the immediacy of the dominating security debate and consequently holding them up to the light of half a century of repression in Manipur. “The crux is in the simple questions ‘what is a terrorist?’ and ‘what is a rebel?’. These are also historical questions. The political run-up to the origin of the Indian Union, which had a kind of last threshold in the North-East, is rooted in a deep sense of suspicion towards populations and communities which pursue a form of autonomy and identity; something which has already been the case in the isolated North-East for centuries. That suspicion is perfectly illustrated in the AFSPA. After the promulgation of that law, the mistrust has moved on to a formal criminalization of any political ambition which went in the direction of more autonomy. The consequences of that can be seen in the increase of officially listed terrorist organizations. In 1958 there was one large armed resistance movement, the Naga National Council (NNC), which at that time had approximately a thousand men. After the AFSPA, which legally freed up the way for tough repression, and which classifies those who oppose this repression as public enemies, dozens of underground movements are being formed. One by one they end up on the prohibited lists. Instead of opening up the political space in which forms and degrees of autonomy can be negotiated or at least discussed openly, central government completely closes off that space and gives in to its own paranoia. The reaction to this structured state violence, which is not just political in its nature, but goes hand in hand with economic and cultural oppression, is the secondary violence of the underground movements. It is not so much secondary because it would bring about less personal suffering and social damage, but particularly because, in the logic of violence, it is a consequence rather than a cause.”

“The apparatus of laws, administrations and institutes which have been established in the North-East over the past fifty years in order to protect ‘national security’, has totally alienated citizens from their rulers. Rather than protecting national security, more insecurity has been created. State security has removed the basis for human security and trust. This in turn is a threat to the government’s main concern, namely the security of the state of India. It has become a cycle.”


Paranoia is the political pathology with which, according to Babloo, the central government has always treated the North-East and which, according to him, has been propagandized into political correctness in the current security debate. Perhaps the political analogy of this psychiatric term can be pursued in the analysis of the cycle of violence in Manipur and of the destructive interaction between terror and anti-terror. Instead of working towards recognizing and understanding the disease, people who feel persecuted develop behavior which confirms their delusion. By eavesdropping in a blatant way they incite the whispering that they wish to hear. The environment becomes the symptom. The disease becomes remedy. As a consequence, the distinction between delusion and fact, betrayal and trust, enemy and follower becomes blurred. One of the many examples, given by Babloo, of security violence in Manipur is the ‘re-utilization’ of the captured or disarmed fighters of underground groups (UGs), as mercenaries in the military battle against terrorism.[3] As with the ‘social’ deployment of civilians in army or rebel offensives and the entanglement between rebels and army, underground and aboveground elites in para-states and para-societies, the suppression of ‘evil’ with ‘evil’ turns the disease into the symptom and the conflict itself into the most essential factor of power. Paranoia breaks out on all sides, always justifying those who want to strike. In such circumstances, whoever exposes and denounces the use of violence, easily becomes the fool who risks the most.

“Since 9/11 suspicion has increased, also in Manipur, with the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA).This act was revoked at a later stage, but in essence replaced by the 2004 Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). With this act, even more so than before, the emphasis lies on the intentions of the suspect, that might precede any punishable act or deed. In this context, talking about secession, discussing more political autonomy is already a form of terrorism. In Manipur every social debate concerns these matters. What does that mean? That the entire political space of a society is criminalized. That the reality of Manipur is blotted out by the political and military term ‘disturbed area’. That central government is eager to open up the North-East economically because of the raw materials in its soil, but politically pursues an active policy of isolation, of maintaining a terra incognita where it has free play, both politically and in a military way. That, for example, an eighty-year-old activist, who talks to the press about political independence, is arrested as a terrorist and with him the journalists who had written about him. I will name a couple of activists who put up a non-violent social fight and who have been arrested as terrorists. Mentioning their names is important. Take Hebal Able Koloi, Chairman of the Borok Peoples Human Rights Organisation, illegally arrested in October 2006 without a warrant and without charge. At a later date the police explained, referring to sections of the UAPA, that Abel Koloi ‘wages war against the state’. After a number of months, he was released on bail as none of the courts found the charges to be proven. New charges on the basis of the National Security Act also remained unproven. A good result, but the couple of months of detention and the torture endured cannot be undone by anybody. Sapamcha Kangleipal is the young chairman of Manipur Forward Youth Front and devotes himself to democratic freedoms and rights. He was arrested in May 2008. But it also happens in Assam. Take Lachit Bordoloi, arrested in February 2008. Lachit is chairman of the People’s Consultative Committee. He was one of the initiators of negotiations between the government and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), a radical armed resistance group. It was one of the many times that he was arrested.”


Sapamcha Kangleipal’s case perfectly illustrates the entanglements in which activists can be caught up. Sapamcha is someone who continues to stir things up in order to keep the political discussion, negotiation and where necessary dissidence, open and alive. Thus, in September 2007, he organized a solidarity action for Irom Sharmila, the woman who has been on hunger strike for nine years as a protest against the AFSPA. In April 2008 he led a protest march; with six hundred young people he walked through districts where gatherings of more than five people are illegal. On May 7th of that year, after the government in Heirok started to deploy citizens in the military fight against insurgents, he discussed the implications of arming civilians in a small circle and criticized Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Sing. The Minister would not ‘repair security’ in Heirok, but ‘rape democracy.’ Sapamcha was arrested for disturbance. A week later he was cleared, but even before his release, the same magistrate re-ordered his arrest and imprisonment, this time on the basis of the National Security Act. For seven days Sapamcha refused to eat. He ended up in Jawahar Lal Nehru Hospital, the hospital where Irom Sharmila is also held. Six months later he made a successful escape. Shortly before his escape he told those who visited his sickbed that the police and armed rebels had supposedly mutually agreed to assassinate him.[4]

Leaders and activists such as the above- mentioned Lachit Bordoloi, Sapamcha Kangleipal, Abel Koloi and Babloo himself, place themselves in the ‘middle ground’, the political, moral and sometimes also geographical strip between the army and the underground. Where repression by legal or illegal rulers has restricted or closed this space, they attempt to open it up. It is their working area. Instead of constructively involving these advocates of the middle ground in peace or conflict-transforming processes, the government sides them with the insurgents and opts for a path of elimination.

Babloo: “Military elimination is an illusion. You can eliminate rebels and terror networks, but the government forgets that an armed resistance group exists by the grace of ideological and political attraction. Only when their ambitions share a common ground with the needs within a society can a small group of armed men develop into a resistance movement. The fact that fractured, ‘homespun’ rebel movements have already survived for half a century in Manipur, without actually having branches in foreign countries, proves that the insurrection is deeply rooted in Manipur society and touches upon existing and widely felt grievances and aspirations. The fact that there are no foreign connections also has to do with the fact that the rebels in Manipur cannot be pushed into the corner of religious extremism. The North-East is religiously and ethnically too diverse and too divided for that, no matter how much the Indian government would like to push the armed resistance into the corner of international religious extremism. Thus they look for other stigmas and incitements. ‘Terrorism’ as well as the use of child soldiers, which is becoming increasingly more sensitive internationally. It does happen that armed rebel groups recruit children in the villages, but sometimes cases are faked and used in the media to execrate and demonize the armed resistance. But what a government cannot hide is that the underground groups, no matter how discreditable, have their story of origin in the grievances of the generations from which I originate. That deep social root is the main reason why the central government wages a security war that holds the entire society hostage. But you cannot act against social injustice with weapons; you can only do something about it through dialogue.”

Systems of violence

The dynamics of suspicion, which can make a security apparatus degenerate into a system of power that creates insecurity and where the original or formal intention creates a contrary reality, can also be seen in the growth process of underground movements. Many small resistance groups that develop into larger, organized systems of violence lose their original political ambitions in that growth. Babloo: “Within the armed resistance there is on-going competition between ideology and the need to be able to maintain a system of violence. In the first place this literally means to survive, but often develops into a system of self-enrichment and the formation of an elite. Here, too, you see that violence produces violence. Political violence becomes coarse violence. Arming, feeding and housing a couple of hundred or five thousand men are two very different things. In the latter case you must continuously look for new forms of extortion, intimidation and illegal methods in order to survive as a movement. It is inevitable that this will be at the expense, of the national state, but above all of the society in the area of conflict. Extortion is mainly a tactic of the smaller splinter groups. The larger UGs such as the UNLF or the PLA have their own agricultural land, fixed sources and supply lines.”

“So you find yourself caught up in a spiraling tension: state repression stirs up the political and social dissatisfaction, from which the armed resistance originates and which in turn can only survive at the cost of that same society. Those who remain unarmed pay dearly in many respects for all those things that are supposedly at stake: security, peace and freedom, without violence bringing those things closer. Violence only reproduces itself.”

In the cycle that renders the violence in Manipur permanent, people create new forms of understanding and daily living. As Babloo says: “People fi nd a way to carve out a living within the conflict. Everyone just wants to live, marry, work and go to school; it’s no different in ‘troubled areas’. There are places in Manipur where the army and rebels are dependent on the same water sources. They make agreements about who is allowed to pump where, one in the morning, the other in the evening. Rebels, district civil servants, politicians, ordinary citizens, everyone meets everyone in the reality of local life and to a certain degree people adjust to each other’s existence. Political enterprise even exists thanks to that obliging attitude which can take on the form of corruption or fraud. In the run-up to local elections you will see, time and time again, that politicians adopt a lenient attitude, with a soft security policy, and afterwards, once elected, they do an about-turn and adopt a more extreme attitude by following the hard line of New Delhi. The reason is that it is impossible in Manipur to elect a politician or ruler without the support of a rebel group, purchased with bribes. The political and administrative class of privileged civil servants installed by India during previous decades in Manipur is a pliable instrument with which central government can fulfill its own agenda, but it has also become entangled in the networks and interests of UGs. Corruption maintains a system of reciprocal dependence between parties that formally continue to fight each other. Take the example of food distribution, the Public Distribution System, for which the government is answerable. When we denounced the level of corruption within that system, not only did the civil servants come down on us, but also the rebels, who handled a large part of that distribution and did not want their sources of income to be jeopardized. In short, existing types of administration keep those who profit from the conflict in the driving seat and automatically push them to higher positions of power.”


What ways are there to fight that spiral of corruption and violence? Babloo: “You can only do that starting from the bottom up, by working with people who live in the conflict.

It requires time, patience and perseverance. First of all, you must try to heal people’s self-esteem. Families who have been living a life of fear and dependence for decades have often lost much of their sense of self- respect and ambition. They were forced by circumstances to learn to bow to violence, to ‘trigger-happy soldiers’. Helping people to get an insight in the forms of exclusion and violence of which they are victims is a first step in this. Alongside this mental and social guidance and healing we follow the legal or human rights strategy. The strength of this is that we work in isolated areas with internationally recognized human rights, laws and resolutions. This gives us a certain moral weight. It’s an instrument that allows us, on the one hand, to apply pressure internationally, and on the other, within the isolation of Manipur; to create openings by making people aware of their own rights and choices. Human Rights Alert collaborates with the treaty partners of the UN, not so much the civil servants who represent their national governments, but the expert lawyers and investigators. Through these people and their reports we can get our message across to the outside world: that the AFSPA is a grave violation of the rule of law, that this same AFSPA is a racist law. Reports from the UN Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch legitimize what we do and create a resonance which is difficult for the Indian government to ignore.”

“What we are now working on, in silence, is the documentation of torture. Torture raises moral indignation worldwide, and there is a clear and internationally recognized criminal law prohibiting torture. In principle, we can make use of the Indian legal system and it’s institutions to denounce the practice of torture. This also works two ways: we fight against impunity and against violations, with means offered to us by the state, in order to bring charges against that state, its army and police.”

“You cannot denounce abuses and violations without offering alternatives at the same time. Sharmila has become such an alternative herself. Without aggression she has succeeded in getting the AFSPA onto national and even international humanitarian agendas and she was able to gain the support of many Manipuri by giving them a feeling of respect and self-esteem. That has a huge impact, also on those who carry the weapons. The real alternative is the dream or the vision of Manipur in twenty-five years’ time, where the change that we are working on now will have taken shape: a society from which the murky cloud of violence and aggression is cleared away. That is my roadmap. Sharmila, in all her serenity and spirituality, embodies that vision for me, because she gives answers to the questions that most Manipuri’s ask themselves: ‘who are we?’ and ‘where are we going?’ It is a vision which appeals to individuals on a personal level, but which also dovetails the political and societal ambitions and desires which live within a population.”

“The response of the world to what happens in Manipur is still very limited, but it is growing. I have the feeling that we are about to reach some kind of breaking point. The government and the army are also applying more pressure. India is eager to open up the North-East and exploit its raw materials. It has already made a start with the construction of large train networks that are of economic importance. But according to the government, that widespread economic liberalization of the North-East can only succeed if the backbone of the armed resistance is broken, which in their eyes makes the need for military-enforced security only greater and, as I stated before, that cannot work. The economic and political pressure on the one hand, and the social and humanitarian pressure on the other are both intensifying. With great risks but perhaps also with the possibility of meaningful negotiations.”

“There are many initiatives and networks of solidarity and, where necessary, social resistance amongst the population. Sometimes these initiatives receive support from international donors. But in international cooperation also hides a danger, because many international donors cooperate too closely with governments and prefer to support organizations and NGOs which have the approval of the political establishment. The security climate and the spirit of economic liberalization make them more likely to shun the dissident movements which are set up by basic communities themselves, such as the women’s networks of the Meira Paibi. By playing ‘safe’, donors threaten to create parallel pseudo-social movements, which push aside original, local initiatives that are far more critical. NGO legislation reinforces this. As a donor you can only finance organizations that are legally registered and approved by the government.

So if you get foreign support, you can be sure that you will be strictly monitored to ensure that you are not going too far politically. In such a climate, the Meira Paibi, for example, can be seen as subversive, whereas they, not so much a formal organization, but more a grass roots movement, dare to fight atrocities and corruption in the villages and confront local rebels and negotiate with them. NGO laws make it impossible for foreign donors to finance movements like the Meira Paibi.”

The devil in the church

Just as the aid industry can become an instrument that turns itself against those in need of help, the human rights circuit can also become a pitfall instead of a road that leads to more protection. Babloo: “In 1997, the Indian government created Human Rights Commissions in Assam and Manipur. They were government bodies, but we were nevertheless able to achieve some results via those commissions. We could, for example, learn from them whether complaints that we had submitted had been dealt with by the police. The Human Rights Commission was an intermediate body that made it easier to start criminal proceedings. We sent all our documents, in duplicate, to the Human Rights Commission and to the police. After confirmation of receipt by the commission, our documents were at least formalized. They formally existed… that helped. But in 2004 they put the devil in the church by appointing a high-ranking officer of the security service as member of the Human Rights Commission in Manipur. Afterwards it became extremely dangerous to hand over files to that commission.”

Babloo’s work and the points of view that he defends in meetings and in the press regularly put him in danger. “That was already the case when I started with Human Rights Alert. In 1997, I was arrested and questioned for hours by the police. I had not violated any law and they could not sentence me. The last arrest was in 2006 when, together with others, I helped Sharmila to escape from Manipur to New Delhi. First they wanted to detain me on the basis of anti-terrorism legislation, which was not possible, and later, because I would supposedly help Sharmila to commit suicide, which was similar nonsense.”

“Sharmila’s action in New Delhi was very important. It was an illustrative action because it shows that activism is a form of walking on a tightrope. Strategically we did two things at the same time. We took Manipur out of the shadows of the North-East and put it into the spotlight of New Delhi. The press turnout was enormous. But in our criticism on the Indian government and the AFSPA, we also simultaneously played on Indian nationalist feelings, by putting the emphasis on Sharmila’s great example, Gandhi. Everything took place at the Gandhi monument. Had we not done that, I would possibly have been arrested for ‘exaggerating and sensationalizing the conflict in Manipur’, which is prohibited. Sharmila was simply arrested once again in New Delhi and locked up in a hospital there for a while. We are not anti-India; we do not fight against the Indian population. We are part of that population. Our fight is aimed against the institutions and the laws that the Indian state uses to brutally oppress Manipur for more than half a century now. But then we were attacked by the rebels in Manipur for what we did in New Delhi! I received death threats because I had supposedly ‘Indianized’ Sharmila with that stunt at the Gandhi monument. But when you receive criticism from both the state and rebels for the same action, as also happened after our criticism on the Public Distribution System in Manipur, it is a sign that you are really on the road to start a genuine social debate and to carve out democratic space.”


* Frank van Lierde is a researcher and journalist at Cordaid. A graduate of Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, he worked as a teacher and translator in Belgium before joining Amnesty International Netherlands as a researcher at the Refugee Desk in Amsterdam. He is the author of Cordaid’s Countering the Politics of Fear, from which this article is excerpted.

Cordaid is a Dutch development funding agency that focuses on relief aid, poverty eradication, society building, and policy influencing. Cordaid works hand in hand with organizations in the global south as well as in Europe and the United States for a more just and equitable society.

[1] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

[2] Public interest litigation.

[3] Dignity and Human Security in Manipur, in: Eastern Quarterly, vol. 3, issue 1 (2005)

[4] Also see: Sandeep Pandey, Why did Sapamcha Kangleipal run away from custody? Citizen News Service, 4 February 2009.