India's top court has ordered the federal government to respond to allegations that more than 1,500 people have been killed by security forces in an insurgency-hit northeastern state since 1978.
The Supreme Court, which has also ordered the Manipur state government to respond, was acting on Monday on a petition filed by a group representing families of 1,528 men, women and children allegedly "executed" by security forces.
The 410-page petition asks for the setting up of a special investigation team comprising police "of integrity" to investigate the killings in the tiny state that "should shock the conscience of the entire nation".
"The governments have to respond to the allegations in the petition," the group's lawyer, Colin Gonsalves, said. The case would come before the court again on November 4, he said.
The petition is the latest effort in a fight by activists in revolt-racked, heavily militarised Manipur to halt what they say are extrajudicial killings under a law that gives sweeping powers and immunity to security forces.
Alleged victims named in the petition include a 19-year-old man who went to get his scooter fixed and whose body turned up at the morgue with torture marks. It also mentions a 22-year-old who went looking for a missing cow and was found shot dead.
"We want a proper investigation into these deaths. We need recognition that these people were innocent - these killings must stop," the head of Manipur-based Human Rights Alert, Babloo Loitongbam, said.
The Armed Forces Special Powers Act enables security forces to shoot on sight and arrest anybody without a warrant to deal with insurgencies in some northeastern states and in Kashmir in the north.
The act has been attacked by human rights groups such as Amnesty International, which says it is a stain on India's democratic credentials.
Earlier this year, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Christof Heyns, called the alleged killings a matter "of serious concern".
The Indian government says it needs the special powers act to protect security forces facing heavily armed militants. But Loitongbam, who is a lawyer, said the act has "created an ecology that facilitates killing" in which security forces are encouraged with special awards and promotions to kill innocent people and claim they are militants.
He said the 1,528 alleged victims cited in the petition "is not an exhaustive list - it's just those people whose details we've been able to gather".
Bordering Myanmar, Manipur has 2.5 million people and myriad separatist groups. At least 10,000 people have died in the past three decades of violence, rights groups say.
Manipur's most famous campaigner against the special powers act is Irom Sharmila, dubbed the "Iron Lady of Manipur", who went on a fast 12 years ago after soldiers shot dead 10 civilians at a bus stand. She is now force-fed by authorities.