It’s been 147 days since nine people were killed in the violence that broke out during an agitation at Churachandpur in Manipur last year, but their bodies still seem no closer to undertaking their final journey. Local residents say they had died for a cause, something they cannot afford to bury three feet under the ground until it is realised.
The nine had died between August 31 and September 1 last year while protesting against the Manipur assembly passing three controversial bills allegedly aimed at depriving tribals of the right to their land, and benefitting only those living in the valley. But those supporting the legislations, which dealt with land reforms and commercial establishments, claimed they were meant to safeguard the rights of the Manipuri people from outsiders.
Within hours of the passage of the bills on August 31, protestors from Manipur’s hilly areas took to the streets – Churachandpur forming the epicenter of the agitation. As tensions escalated and protesters took to violence and arson, police opened fire – allegedly killing six of the protesters.
Today, memories of that day continue to haunt the town – home to several tribes such as the Kuki, Paite, Hmar and Zomi. Men, women and children continue to gather near the Churachandpur district hospital morgue, where the bodies of the nine are kept. Sitting in front of nine empty coffins, all bearing photographs of the deceased, they sing hymns and shout slogans against the bills.
The nine dead people have turned martyrs in their eyes, and the meetings outside the morgue have assumed a near-ritualistic quality.
According to the tribals, the local morgue was ill-equipped to keep bodies for more than a day – it had no cold storage facility. Fervent demands cut through the red tape, but very slowly, and the facility was installed over 100 days after the bodies were brought in. By then, they had decomposed beyond recognition.
The tribals complain that the state government has done little to address their concerns. “We went to register an FIR, but the police officer-in-charge refused to comply. They said they were conducting their own inquiry. Later, I get a letter from the police branding my young son as a criminal. He is only 11,” says 40-year-old Nemneiching, mother of Khaijamang Touthang, one of the victims.
She speaks the truth. The suo moto case registered by the police officer-in-charge accuses the 11-year-old of arson and attacking a police station.
Besides doing away with the bills, the hill tribes want the state government to launch an investigation into the killing of the nine people. They complain that while the authorities set up an inquiry commission to probe the death of one person during the ILP protests in the valley, they seem to be taking no such step for their counterparts from the hills.
Meanwhile, the region continues to reel under sporadic violence and bandhs. Just two days ago, women protestors from the two sides had clashed at Torbung – injuring 10. Following this, the district magistrate of Churachandpur imposed a curfew in the area, prohibiting the assembly of more than 10 people.
Many politicians have come out in support of the protest. On December 9, a coffin rally was organised at Jantar Mantar in Delhi to mark 100 days of the Churachandpur killings. Four MPs – Tarun Vijay of the BJP, former Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio, Jiten Chowdhury of the CPM and Biswajit Daimary of the Bodoland People’s Front – addressed protesters and demanded a review of the three bills.
“We’ve met a lot of politicians, but nothing has been done yet,” says T Romeo Hmar, convenor of the Manipur Tribals Forum Delhi (MTFD). “Home minister Rajnath Singh says he has been talking to the chief minister, but they are not doing anything. While Singh said we should put more pressure on the state government, he also asked us to bury the bodies.”
Since the incident, the MTFD and the Joint Action Committee (JAC) of various tribes formed in Churachandpur have met many politicians – including Rajnath Singh, Kiren Rijiju and state chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh – but nothing seems to have worked out.
JAC convenor H Mangchinkhup said the Manipur chief minister clearly told them that the bills were passed under pressure from CorCom (coordination committee), an umbrella organisation of militant groups.
Taking the agitation forward, the MTFD and JAC plans to take out a protest on January 25 – a day before Republic Day. Protesters say the movement intends to question the nature of the Indian republic, which – they allege – denies citizens their rights.
If there’s one thing all the tribals believe in, it’s a resolution to not give up unless their demands are met. Chiinneihching, a 62-year-old woman who lost her son in police firing, echoes the sentiment. “Let him be there for years,” she says. “Let him be there until only his skeleton remains. I’ll be fine with that because he died for his people, his land.”