In a state bloodied by decades of armed rebellion, Thounaojam Herojit became one of India's most deadly policemen – killing more than a hundred people. This year, he became something rarer still: an executioner who wanted to tell the world about his ...
When he began to kill, Thounaojam Herojit never intended to tell his wife â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ part of an elite unit raised to fight the insurgents â€“ and he was set to become their most effective executioner.
At first, he kept a tally of his kills in his head: â€œ10, 11, 12 â€¦â€ 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 â€“ 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 roadâ€‘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. â€œWhich party are you?â€
â€œU,â€ they confessed, meaning the United National Liberation Front, one of the strongest among dozens of groups fighting the government.
â€œWell, weâ€™re PLA,â€ Herojit replied, meaning the Peopleâ€™s Liberation Army of Manipur â€“ fellow fighters, at least in that moment, when the common enemy was men in uniforms. Get in the truck, another cop said, thereâ€™s a place up the road where we can ambush the police convoy. The men passed up their AK-47s and climbed in, grateful â€“ until they found themselves looking down the snout of Herojitâ€™s pistol.
â€œOnce they were all inside, we told them, â€˜Weâ€™re police, but be calm, we just want to talk,â€™â€ Herojit recalled.
The seven men stayed subdued, and the truck drove to a predetermined spot on the hillside â€“ where Herojit shot them dead.
The seven men stayed subdued, and the truck drove to a spot on the hillside â€“ where Herojit shot them all 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 â€œencounterâ€. That was the routine. It was always on orders, Herojit says, either direct instructions â€“ 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 Indiaâ€™s borders, where armed separatist movements unleashed conflicts that have cost tens of thousands of lives. Kashmir â€“ which has erupted again this summer â€“ 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 â€“ 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 Indiaâ€™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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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.
His movements were secretive. Though our meetings had been scheduled, we never knew how long we would have to wait before he appeared. Herojit was shy, small-built and gulag-thin. He seemed wrecked by years of stress, addiction, and exposure to danger â€“ and at the time that we met him, none of the three seemed likely to be relieved. Very few people alive have killed more than 100 men, face to face. Even fewer have made an attempt to talk about it to strangers. He was, our hostess told us, â€œa saint who became a monster, and is trying again to become a saintâ€.
Manipur in north-east India
We were seated on sofas. He sat on the floor, and looked at his phone as he started to speak.
Herojit was born in 1981, to a farming family in Lamdeng, on the outskirts of Imphal. His father owned paddy fields, with enough land left over for bamboo groves and a kitchen garden of herbs and cabbages. He also had a job, as a clerk at the public health department.
They were Meiteis â€“ Hindus, like most residents of the Imphal valley, in the centre of Manipur. The encircling hills are home to the Naga and Kuki tribes, converts to evangelical Christianity. Herojit is not a traditional Meitei name, but means what it sounds like: â€œHeroâ€, in English, with the suffix â€œJitâ€, meaning victory.
It was among the hill tribes, in the 1960s, that armed rebellion against the Indian state began. Each decade it expanded, as a ball of cells does, by constantly splitting. Revenue, from kidnapping and extortion, came easy. With forested borders that enabled the smuggling of arms and narcotics, and neighbouring states that offered shelter, forming a splinter-group was not hard. The Kuki tribe alone now harbours 26 competing militant factions.
It was in the 1990s, when Herojit entered high school, that Meitei separatists began to take up arms against the Indian state. As the only man in Lamdeng with a government salary, Herojitâ€™s father had a virtual target nailed to his door.
Dusk comes early in Manipur, and the naharol (the gunmen) always arrived at bedtime, in gangs of 20 or 30. The family huddled together while the rebels ransacked their house. â€œThey opened anything they could open,â€ Herojit recalled. â€œThere was nothing to take. They only took my peace of mind.â€ One night his grandfather appealed for respite, and a naharol kicked him in the face.
The naharol carried demand-notes, printed on official letterheads. Despite their rough delivery, the letters always reprised in high revolutionary style the purpose for which â€œgenerous donationsâ€ were requested. One note the family received from the United National Liberation Front in April 1997 explained:
The UNLF was established in November 24, 1964, with the firm conviction that Indian colonial rule had been strangling the genuine development of our peoples â€¦ We have also begun striking at the occupation forces from time to time in order to awaken the masses to the real and ugly face of Indian colonialism and to propagate the revolutionary line that our national pride and independence can be regained through armed struggle only â€¦
The amount solicited: 20,000 rupees (Â£226). Receipts were provided.
Herojitâ€™s father started selling his land to pay off the militantsâ€™ demands. â€œIt was too much,â€ Herojit said. â€œEach time there was a demand, we went without food. But no one was allowed to speak, to confront them, to beg for reason.â€
One day, when he was 17, he had enough. â€œWe are six siblings,â€ he shouted at the gunmen. â€œWe have so many mouths to feed. We want to help you, but at least look at what our earnings are! Do some justice to us.â€
The men turned, and Herojit went on: â€œAlso, just know â€“ I can join a rival group â€“ I can, and come do this to you.â€
They grew curious. â€œYouâ€™re a brave boy,â€ one of them said, â€œWhy donâ€™t you just join us? Then we wonâ€™t take a cent from your family.â€
Herojit went with them as far as the front gate before his parents caught up, begging the men to let him go. He was too young, he didnâ€™t know what he was saying. They would find the money. The insurgents gave in. â€œBut first he needs to be taught a lesson.â€
They made him lie face-down on the ground. One of them brought over a bamboo rod, which the family used to bar the gate. Herojit does not remember how long they beat him, but afterwards the family sat around him and they all cried.
And after that, he told us, â€œI was ready to kill.â€
Five years later, in December 2002, Herojit pumped eight rounds from his 9mm pistol into two suspected insurgents whom he had caught shaking down a rice vendor in central Imphal â€“ his first kills. He was a newly-enlisted police commando, and had settled in with his future wife, Ratna Devi, only a week before. Afterwards, he went to bathe and sit out the rest of the day. His mind was calm, and he remembers thinking: â€œWhat I want has started today.â€
His timing was lethal. In 2002, after years of feeble state governments, Manipur had a new chief minister, Okram Ibobi. The same year, Yumnam Joykumar, a police officer who had served in Kashmir at the height of its insurgency in the 1990s, returned to a posting in his home state. Joykumar had been inspired by an earlier stint in Northern Ireland, where he learned counter-terrorism strategy from the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He came back to Manipur convinced that only a â€œfighting-fitâ€ police force could break the back of militant groups embedded in the local population.
In Manipur, â€œthe reputation of the police was for abject surrender, giving away its weapons,â€ Joykumar said when we met at his home this April. Insurgents bombed military convoys and assassinated officials, raided police stations and bought off legislators. Manipur had been reduced to a garrison state, its people and economy stifled by nightly curfew, highway blockades and militant â€œtaxationâ€ â€“ extortion from local residents and businesses. â€œThe police had forgotten that they could fight back.â€
The judiciary, with its insistence on â€œthe benefit of the doubtâ€, was another impediment to putting suspected militants away, Joykumar insisted. â€œWe never had a chance of convicting any terrorist.â€ But there was another option: the staged encounter.
For years, the Indian army had eliminated suspected militants with little controversy â€“ but one such killing, in July 2004, proved a step too far. One night at 3am, a young woman named Thangjam Manorama was arrested from her family home by a party of the Assam Rifles, a government paramilitary force deployed across the troubled north-east of India. She was suspected of aiding the Peopleâ€™s Liberation Army of Manipur. That same night, she was shot dead, allegedly while attempting to escape. Forensic examiners found eight bullet wounds â€“ one to her genitals â€“ and semen stains on her skirt.
Across India, the word â€œencounterâ€ is an accepted gloss for the way security forces commit murder and then cover it up. In Manoramaâ€™s case, the jaded conscience of the Indian public was finally pricked. Five days later, a group of Manipuri imas (mothers), staged a singular protest. At the gate of the Kangla Fort, the historic seat of Meitei sovereignty, and then the headquarters of the Assam Rifles, they gathered and began to undress. Eventually they stood naked, only holding up a banner that read in crimson letters: INDIAN ARMY RAPE US.
It was a dire indictment of the â€œmainlandâ€ troops who, darker-skinned and moustached, were regarded as agents of a racial occupation of Manipur. (The faces and skin-tones of indigenous peoples here more closely resemble those of south-east Asians.) It became politically necessary to pull those troops back, and recruit locals to do their dirty work. So the police commandos received new weapons, vehicles and orders, and new bodies began to fall in the woods and irrigation ditches of the Imphal valley.
To demonstrate why it was futile to arrest insurgents, Herojit told us his own version of a story we had heard earlier from another police officer.
In 2006, his unit captured a sergeant major of the Peopleâ€™s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (Prepak), along with a cache of their arms. â€œThat was when the Nokia N73 was the in thing,â€ Herojit said. â€œThatâ€™s what this guy was demanding [through extortion], and we caught him on the pretext of delivering it.â€ Under Indiaâ€™s National Security Act, a suspect could be detained for up to 12 months without trial. Throughout that year, Herojit says, he got phone calls from inside the jail, threatening to hurt his wife and son unless the Prepak weapons were returned.
â€œI warned him not to drag in my family. But he was stubborn.â€ Word of the threats spread from the office to the other constablesâ€™ wives, and then to Ratna, Herojitâ€™s wife. Frightened, she pulled their son out of school, and stopped leaving police quarters, even to shop or to see her parents.
At the end of 12 months, as the date of the Prepak commanderâ€™s release approached, Herojit and two friends rode a motorbike out to where the road from the Central Jail joined the highway to Imphal. They waited there, until the afternoon of the third day of their stakeout, when a van drove down from the jail. When the driver saw Herojit, waving for them to stop, he sped away.
When Herojit caught up to the van, he ordered everyone out. Six or seven men emerged. Some were Prepak fighters, one was a lawyer. He identified himself: â€œI am Herojit.â€
One man spoke up. â€œTamo [brother], I am sorryâ€¦â€
â€œWhat do you mean sorry? After your threats.â€
â€œTamo, Iâ€™m sorry â€“â€
â€œSit down,â€ Herojit said.
The man refused to sit. â€œHe kept pleading,â€ Herojit recalled. â€œIâ€™m sorry Iâ€™m sorry â€¦ Anyway, I took out my 9mm and I gave him six bullets.â€
The execution in front of witnesses got him suspended for â€˜indiscipline and grave misconductâ€™. It lasted 10 days
That execution, in broad daylight and in front of witnesses, including a lawyer, got him suspended for â€œindiscipline and grave misconductâ€. His suspension lasted 10 days. Then he was needed back at work.
Herojit never told his parents about the nature of his work. But the job sometimes took him back to their village, and whenever he visited, he left a dead body behind. He no longer kept the tally in his head, but in the notebooks at home.
In our first interviews, we found Herojit unwilling to speak about any of this. Tension built in the room as he hedged around the scope and details of his past crimes. Herojit would only repeat that he was following orders, and that he believed he was doing justice, in a way. â€œAt first, because Iâ€™d been a victim of the militantsâ€™ harassment, I thought I was putting an end to it,â€ he said. â€œBut later, when your body is that tired â€¦ you stop caring who is wrong, or who was responsible.â€
Herojit calls most of the men he killed â€œguiltyâ€. Yumnam Joykumar, who became the stateâ€™s police chief in 2007, declared without qualification that in his tenure, â€œnone of the persons killed in encounters were innocentâ€. Yet in Manipur the categories of innocence and guilt had long lost their simplicity. Any young delinquent might consort with local naharol, and as Herojit had himself seen, that was not always by choice.
Many of the people killed in encounters were innocent in this sense â€“ drawn into militant circles by circumstance, and unlikely to face severe punishment under the law. But others were completely innocent: they had no links at all to the insurgency, as a man named Babloo Loitongbam intended to prove. Babloo rallied the families of â€œencounter victimsâ€, and soon they had identified 1,528 Manipuris, all killed by security forces in what appeared to be faked encounters. Of those, he says, 1,200 had taken place under the incumbent chief minister, Ibobi â€“ more than 100 a year.
The families formed a new group, known as Eevfam â€“ a homonym for the local word for bloodstain. In 2013, they brought a case before Indiaâ€™s supreme court, which in turn asked a former judge to investigate six of the 1,528 killings. All six were quickly determined to have been staged. Far from being hardened militants, none of the victims even had a criminal record.
One victim, Mohammad Azad Khan, had been resting with his family on the veranda of their village home when police commandos arrived to take him. The family resisted, and they were locked in a room. They watched through a window as he was led out to a field and shot in the back. Azad Khan was 12 years old.
Yet activists despaired of ever seeing the perpetrators punished. The state would stonewall any prosecution, Babloo said. â€œAnd you just canâ€™t see 1,528 soldiers and police ever going to prison.â€
Questions of legality never crossed Herojitâ€™s mind. Besides, he said, he had a reputation: â€œNot just for marksmanship, but because I did my job well.â€ His colleagues looked up to him, and his superiors wanted him in their charge. Other policemen might scavenge money and phones off the corpses, but Herojit never touched a dead body. He had his humble quarters, and he was teetotal. He never needed much money, and never imagined how badly, in the future, he might.
In 2008, when a 22-year-old named Konsam Rishikanta, a junior subeditor at the daily Imphal Free Press, was found dead â€“ shot repeatedly in the face and torso â€“ pressure from the journalistsâ€™ union forced an investigation. Herojit was implicated, and suspended again. But still he believed himself untouchable. In 2009, the governor of Manipur pinned a gallantry medal to Herojitâ€™s chest. The same year, he was promoted to head constable. Then, on 23 July 2009, he at last faced his own reckoning.
It was late morning when the fatal message came in for Herojit. He was just about to eat his first mouthful of rice.
It was a constable named Toyaima on the wireless: â€œMobile-13 â€“ weâ€™ve been fired on by an unknown armed youth â€“ near the public toilet.â€ Herojit pushed away his lunch and raced to the scene.
The state assembly was in session, and the force was on high alert. Herojit rode past the gate and turned his bike onto the B-T Road, an avenue between Imphalâ€™s two largest markets. Here, between the scooters and the shoppers, was a huddle of conferring commandos, and a scrum of reporters from local TV stations. Herojit parked alongside. A young man had just been stopped, Toyaima said. He had made a run for it, and turned and fired a pistol at the policemen. The cops fired back, but the street was crowded, and the man got away.
The commandos fanned out to search the area. Herojit was waiting by a pharmacy when one of them returned, bringing with him a 22-year-old named Chungkham Sanjit. He was unarmed. â€œWhen Toyaima saw Sanjit, he charged right at him,â€ Herojit recalled. â€œI held him back.â€ This was the man who had fired on them, Toyaima claimed. Herojit led Sanjit into the pharmacy to ask him some questions. The pharmacist was inside, along with a watch repairman who rented some of the counter space.
â€œOne of the other constables handed me a mobile, a basic one they had taken off [Sanjit],â€ said Herojit. â€œThe phone kept ringing and ringing, so I picked it up. It was a male voice. â€˜Spare the boyâ€™s life,â€™ it said. â€˜Just let me know the name of who has arrested him. We can arrange however much you say â€¦â€™â€
This was confirmation that Sanjit belonged to a militant group. â€œThe pharmacist might have heard it,â€ Herojit told us. â€œThe watch repairman definitely heard it. Anyway, I said, â€˜I have a salary. And Iâ€™m not that kind of policeman. So letâ€™s be straight with each other. How many of your guys came here, and where have they hidden the pistol?â€™
â€œâ€˜Please give the phone to my boy,â€™ the caller said. I said, â€˜Go ahead. Youâ€™re on speaker.â€™
â€œâ€˜Donâ€™t be afraid. Weâ€™re here for you â€“ nothing is going to happen. Just cooperate â€¦â€™ Then I cut the call.â€
Right then, Herojit recalled, a policeman came in to say that a superior officer, Akoijam Jhalajit, had arrived. â€œSo I told Jhalajit, â€˜Weâ€™ve got the suspect and Iâ€™ve confirmed itâ€™s the guy.â€™ I told him about the phone call.
â€œâ€˜Very good,â€™ he told me, then said, â€˜Touthok-khroâ€™.â€ Finish it.
â€œI warned him â€“ there was media all over the place, and the public â€¦ It shouldnâ€™t be done here. But he snapped back, â€˜Ushh â€¦ tuoroâ€™. [Just do it.] â€˜Iâ€™ve taken the trouble of getting the consent of the CM and the DGP.â€™â€
The CM was the chief minister, Okram Ibobi. The DGP, or director general of police, was Yumnam Joykumar. (Jhalajit has publicly denied Herojitâ€™s allegations, and he declined to be interviewed for this story. When we spoke to Joykumar, he rubbished Herojitâ€™s claims, calling them an attempt to shift the blame.)
â€œWhat about the media?â€
â€œâ€˜Iâ€™ll take care of the media.â€™â€
Jhalajit turned and announced that the gunmen had headed towards the Kangla Fort. He walked off in that direction, and the reporters ran after him.
â€œI went back in,â€ Herojit recalled. â€œI told the other guys to leave. Then I drew my pistol and shot Sanjit six times.â€ As he spoke, Herojit ran his hand over his chest, indicating the area.
Then, he said, he turned to the watch repairman, who was crouched on the floor, eyes flicking between Herojitâ€™s face and his name badge. Herojit leaned over and held out the badge for the man to read. â€œI let him know that if he ever said a word, heâ€™d be next.â€
Related: Pictures point to Indian police killing unarmed man in Manipur
Afterwards, a flat-bed truck backed up through the gawking crowd. Sanjitâ€™s body was lugged out of the pharmacy and lifted in. Herojit saw another body in the truck â€“ it was a woman. In the initial burst of gunfire between the fleeing insurgent and the police, the woman, who was five monthsâ€™ pregnant, had been hit in the right cheek by a stray bullet and killed. â€œUntil then, I felt nothing. I never felt remorse about killing a man, but seeing a woman dead â€¦â€ Suddenly, he said, there were tears in his eyes.
Back at the station, Herojit waited for an officer of the local unit to write up the false report, which he would sign. Then he returned to work. Later that day, in the Manipur state assembly, Chief Minister Ibobi announced that a PLA terrorist had just been taken down by state police.
But elsewhere in Imphal, a photographer was downloading the images he had shot near the scene of Sanjitâ€™s death â€“ first from across the street, and then up close, unnoticed in the commotion.
As he sifted through his photographs, he found himself watching the full sequence of an execution, frame by frame. There, in the late morning glare, a young man stood patiently with his captors. There he was being yanked into a store. Then being carried out by his hands and feet. Finally, laid out on the truck, one foot still in its rubber sandal.
The photographer ejected his memory card and destroyed it. Then he called Babloo Loitongbam â€“ the only person he could trust. Through Babloo, the photographs reached the regional correspondent of Tehelka, a muckraking newsweekly headquartered in Delhi. Two weeks later, on August 9, the grisly montage of Sanjitâ€™s death was a national cover story, headlined â€œMurder in Plain Sightâ€.
The images were reprinted internationally, including in the Guardian, and, of course, in every paper in Manipur. The outcry that followed was the greatest since the rape and killing of Manorama five years earlier. The naked protest in 2004 had been an invitation to rage, but the images of Sanjitâ€™s execution in 2009 were both emblem and evidence. The commandosâ€™ disgrace was multiplied by the death of the pregnant woman Rabina, who had her one-year-old child with her that day.
Protesters shut down the city for weeks. Imphalâ€™s streets were choked with tear gas and the smoke of burning tyres. On 26 August, the police were compelled to register a complaint by Sanjitâ€™s mother, alleging murder and illegal use of arms. Herojit was suspended again, along with eight others. That failed to calm the protests. Student unions shuttered schools and colleges, and kept them closed for four more months. Eventually, Chief Minister Ibobi agreed to transfer the case from the state police to a national agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Herojit was interrogated, more than 10 times, he said. He stuck to the official account, as given in the police report: After the commandos found Sanjit holed up in the pharmacy, â€œall of a sudden the door flung open from inside and an unknown person fired upon us from inside, missing us by inches â€¦ In the retaliatory firing the armed youth was shot dead at the spot.â€
In front of the investigators, Herojit recalled, â€œit was always the same question, put in a different manner: â€˜Who gave the order?â€™â€ One day, from 9am to 11.30pm, they asked only that: â€œWho gave the order?â€ But he refused to cooperate.
Another day, the investigators asked him if he would invite them home for tea. Herojit thought about his quarters, the holes in the walls. â€œBut I said, â€˜Sure, I donâ€™t have any problem.â€™â€ The moment they were in his house, Herojit told us, he realised it was a raid. They found his diaries. â€œStill, I felt I had done nothing wrong. Since they wanted it, I let them take it.â€
The CBI found the police version of events to be a shambles. The crime scene had not been preserved, and the list of seized firearms was inconsistent. The postmortem report noted six entry and four exit-wounds in Sanjitâ€™s body. Of the four bullets that passed through his liver and lungs, only one had been fired while Sanjit was standing â€“ the other three had torn into his body when he was flat on the ground.
Sanjit did have a police record: In 1999, when he was 13, he had signed up with the PLA. He had been arrested, had spent a year in detention, and according to his family, had repented and reformed. On that morning in July, he and a friend had taken lunch to an uncle who was in hospital. Sanjit then went down to the market to fill out a prescription and collect a lab report. He never made it that far.
In September of 2010, Herojit was indicted for murder. Eight other commandos faced charges as well, from murder to falsifying records. They were among the first policemen to be charged with capital crimes in Manipurâ€™s 30-year history of counter-insurgency. Despite the severity of the charges, the magistrate let the men out on bail. Still, Herojit began to contemplate the possibility of his own execution.
At first, the drugs seemed benign. Herojit was never a drinker, but now that he was on trial, he found that Spasmol, a prescription muscle-relaxant, helped him go to sleep. â€œAfter I was charged, I initially felt nothing, no agitation,â€ he said. â€œI thought I was protected by the government, my seniors.â€ As the trial progressed, however, he felt himself being pried apart from the police force. His officers never checked in on him. He had to pay his own legal fees, from a salary that had been slashed since his suspension. He was not always sure whether he was still in the police.
The institution that had shaped him, and to which he had shown total obedience since the age of 18, had deserted him. Herojitâ€™s wife Ratna never blamed him, but she would lament how much he had trusted the force to take care of them â€“ and how alone they felt now.
â€œI begged her to forget that part,â€ he said.
When the Spasmol stopped working, Herojit tried â€œNo 4â€, a type of heroin common in Manipur, also known as China white. He had civilian friends who injected, but he didnâ€™t like the thought of that, so they showed him how No 4 could be smoked off foil or in a cigarette. â€œI was never on drugs to get high,â€ he said. â€œI used it during those sleepless nights when I couldnâ€™t stop thinking.â€ Again, he didnâ€™t intend for Ratna to know. He would light up in the evenings, in the quiet room at home, where he was meant to be tutoring his son.
â€œWhen she found out, she was furious.â€
Apart from the nine low-ranking policemen facing trial, no one was held accountable. In 2012, Okram Ibobi won a third term as Manipurâ€™s chief minister, making him one of Indiaâ€™s longest-serving state leaders. Jhalajit, who Herojit says ordered Sanjitâ€™s killing, was promoted to superintendent of police. Over time, Herojit realised that he was being seen as a liability â€” and he knew how the police dealt with its liabilities.
Soon enough, they tried to get him out of the way. In 2014, he received orders to join a new unit, the 8 Indian Reserve Brigade at Khabeisoi, outside the city. The Khabeisoi camp had a reputation as a lawless outpost, even by Manipurâ€™s standards. The police shared the camp with former militants, who were sheltered there under the terms of their surrender. They were â€œthe wildest typeâ€, Herojit says, boys hardened to murder and drugged up to the eyeballs up to their eyes, most recently on a type of meth from Myanmar referred to as WY â€” World Is Yours. Last December, one surrendered militant murdered a rival, cooked his flesh and served it to comrades at dinner.
As one of Herojitâ€™s friends put it: â€œThey were sending him off to become part of the menu.â€
Herojit refused the transfer, and his salary was terminated. Now his family had no income at all, yet his drug-use intensified. He sank deeper into No 4 and his own regrets. â€œNo matter how I was known then,â€ he thought, â€œLook at me now. No one comes to my rescue as I suffer.â€ His family suffered too. Some days they skipped a meal. Once, he says reluctantly, they couldnâ€™t afford a bag of coal for the fire so he broke up a wooden stool. Next he chopped up an old door.
The final straw was when their home was raided by his own colleagues last December, and Herojit was hauled down to the station. He spent five or six hours in the lock-up, burning with humiliation. Then he was grilled about his links to insurgent gangs. He shook his head and said: â€œI told them, if they had any proof they could shoot me right there.â€
Back at his quarters, blank days followed sleepless nights, and Herojit struggled towards a decision. He wanted to defy the code of omerta that existed within the police. â€œI wasnâ€™t doing it out of revenge or anger,â€ he said. â€œBut I became aware of how I had been used. I had been trained to blindly follow orders, without reason. Thatâ€™s what I wanted to expose. Thatâ€™s what I wanted to say, has to stop.â€
â€œThe idea was brewing for a while. To look back at all my deeds and understand if it was really the right thing to do. Itâ€™s not natural for me to be selfless, but in that phase of suffering I was inspired to do something unknown. I decided to spill it.â€
In January of this year, he sent an SMS to the wife of a distant relative with political connections. She told him to come over, and he arrived at dawn, through chilly January fog. â€œHe was a walking corpse,â€ she told me. â€œWhen I saw him then, I thought it was last time I would see him alive.â€ He told her everything. â€œSince then, I havenâ€™t been sleeping well,â€ she said.
The first person she called for help was Babloo Loitongbam.
On 24 January, at a secret meeting with journalists in Bablooâ€™s offices, Herojit confessed to having executed Sanjit in 2009. It was the first testimony from inside the force that â€œfake encountersâ€ were not the work of callous constables, but had been sanctioned up the chain of command. Then, almost spontaneously, he made a guileless declaration about the extent of his other killings.
Before the news was broadcast, Herojit was spirited off to New Delhi for safety. His sole escort was Babloo, who had some experience smuggling activists out of Manipur. One day, as they were walking in Delhiâ€™s Lodi Gardens, against a backdrop of winter flowers and Islamic tombs, Herojit asked Babloo how to face his own 11-year-old son, who would be learning at school about what his father had done. â€œBrother,â€ Herojit said, â€œhow can a man respond, when his son asks him that?â€
â€œYou can say: â€˜Yes, your father is a killer. But if he had the courage to kill, he also had the courage to tell the truth about it.â€™ You are the only person who has had that courage. If you disclose everything, getting a pardon wonâ€™t be easy, but it is honourable. Make that what your children know about you.â€
Since 2013, Babloo had argued before the supreme court for a full investigation into all of the 1,528 fake encounters Eevfam had identified. But he knew there was almost no chance of that happening â€“ even after a judge had exposed the murder of an innocent 12-year-old, no one had been punished.
He realised that Herojitâ€™s confession could be a sort of catharsis â€“ not just for the killer, but for the families of his victims, who had been denied any justice at all, and maybe even for Manipur itself, after decades of insurgency and state vengeance. â€œHis case could be a first step toward a process of restorative justice,â€ Babloo said. â€œIt opened a door to a whole new, higher moral ground.â€
The next morning, there was problem. Herojit was tweaking and needed his fix. Babloo says he knew there was a culture of substance abuse in the commandos: â€œThat kind of killing machine could only be built with the use of drugs.â€ He didnâ€™t know what Herojit was using, and he didnâ€™t plan to go hunting for it in New Delhi. Herojit announced he was flying back to Imphal.
At Tulihal airport, Herojitâ€™s wife and family waited, jostled by a crowd of journalists. Though his story had not been big news in a country typically indifferent to events in the north-east, back in Manipur he was a sensation. The passengers exited. There was no sign of Herojit. Ratna waited four hours, and finally did what the commandos had forced so many other desperate families to do: she filed a missing personsâ€™ report with the same police she believed had abducted him.
In fact, Herojit had disappeared on his own. Seeing the crowd at the arrival ramp, he had pulled his hoodie over his eyes, slipped through behind a bigger man, and headed straight to a friendâ€™s place. â€œHeâ€™s still a cop,â€ Babloo observed. â€œHeâ€™s been a cop for 15 years. He may have jumped the fence, but thatâ€™s still his thought process.â€
He reappeared on 30 January, in time to face the cameras in the Manipur Press Club. Wrapped in a scarf and a beige hoodie, with his palms pressed together before him, Herojit again confessed to killing Sanjit. â€œBecause I am a murderer, I am ready for any penalty,â€ he said, almost inaudibly. â€œEven if it is death, I will accept it humbly.â€ But he had been made a scapegoat, he added. He asked that the other eight constables be absolved of a murder in which they had no part. As for his superiors â€“ those he alleged had given the orders to kill â€“ he hoped the public would demand to know who was truly responsible.
When questions came, everyone in the room wanted to know about his number of kills, the figure he had revealed four days earlier. Herojit became evasive, refused to confirm it, and the press conference was quickly wrapped up. The shrewd, combative instincts of a cop were pulling away from the confessional urge of an exhausted criminal.
By the time we met, in April this year, Herojitâ€™s confession looked to have backfired. He had petitioned the court to investigate his claims about the chain of command, but his plea was rejected. A parallel petition by an unlikely ally â€“ the mother of his victim, Sanjit â€“ for investigators to revisit the case was brushed off as well. Herojitâ€™s bosses remained untouched.
â€œFollowing my revelation, I thought, if justice is served, more people would come out,â€ Herojit said. â€œSince itâ€™s not, they remain afraidâ€. And he was more exposed than ever: the only person facing justice was him. He would now admit only his role in Sanjitâ€™s death â€“ a case in which he was already as good as proven guilty. To speak of the other killings was too much of a risk.
The redemption of the killer cop was turning into a farce. In the public eye, it looked as though Herojit was trying to turn attention away from his own guilt toward the role of his commanders â€“ and his confession began to seem like a calculated effort to pass the buck. To cynics in the courtroom, Herojitâ€™s aim was only to implicate a higher officer, someone against whom he could plea-bargain to escape justice again. Without a full reckoning of all his own crimes â€“ of all the victims before Sanjit â€“ Herojitâ€™s confession was becoming just another lie.
It was easier that way. The rest of Manipur would move on. Today, the rebellion in the Imphal Valley seems decisively ended. In the hills, too, it has dwindled to sporadic eruptions. The jealousies and resentments of the tribes of Manipur have turned back on one another, instead of at the state â€“ Indiaâ€™s working definition of national integration. The commandos, too, have renounced the worst of their habits. A decades-long curfew has lifted. In Imphalâ€™s blasted economy, there are new blooms of life: ATMs, espresso machines, a Thai eatery open well past sundown.
In the week after our first meetings, Herojit went into rehab. He says he came out clean. Privately, he still wondered if he should come out and confess it all â€“ and then he got a grim reminder that he might not have much time. On April 30, the evening before what was to have been our final meeting, Herojit was driving a friendâ€™s car on a darkened street. A minivan with no headlights and no registration plates swung into his path and rammed him head on. His hatchback was totalled, and Herojit was lucky to escape with only a fractured leg and a gashed forehead.
After that, Herojit was no longer evasive. â€œI mean to confess every case I can recall,â€ he said, â€œsoon.â€ In early May, Herojit came to a room in the Hotel Imphal. He was on crutches, but despite his fresh injuries, he was alert and sardonic. He did not inform his minders, and brought only his teenage son. For the first time, Herojit began to talk in detail about all the other killings.
He fears for himself and his family, he said, but he thinks Babloo was right: if thereâ€™s a hope for his redemption, it lies on the other side of a moral act, not a legal manoeuvre. And behind that act lies a chance of redemption for Manipur â€“ and for all of Indiaâ€™s defiant states where counter-insurgency has gone rogue.
â€œAs humans we all die,â€ Herojit said, â€œBut unless we come out about this, weâ€™re all going to hell.â€
Main photograph by Grace Jajo.
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