There are always more questions than answers floating in the air of Imphal--and a majority of those are about missing and dead people.
One more question was added to that long list on December 25 when construction workers dug out eight skulls and skeletons along with other items (a coin, bangles and human hair) at the Tombisana High School complex in Imphal, a city that has ceased to breathe normally for a very long time.
In any other state of India (except Kashmir and Chhattisgarh), such a discovery would have probably gone unnoticed by the general public, but in Imphal such findings are never ignored. This is because such detection could actually bring closure to families of those who "involuntarily disappeared".
The reason why there is so much talk in Imphal about this discovery is this: The school was a former base of the central paramilitary forces during the peak of insurgency (1980 to 1999), a period when hundreds of youths either disappeared or were arrested by the forces for their alleged links with militants.
So when the labourers found those skeletons and skulls in the school, citizens, civil society organisations and the Opposition (Manipur People's Party) felt that the grounds could have been used by the security forces to dump bodies and, therefore, demanded that the Ibobi Singh-led state government stop the digging and seal the area; set up a high-level commission of inquiry to systematically excavate the premise, do a DNA profiling of families whose loved ones had 'disappeared' during the time period and match them the human remains, and initiate criminal proceedings if any foul play is found.
Watch: Hundreds go missing in Manipur
Initial expert opinion said that the skulls and skeletons would have been buried for around 17 to 40 years and that period roughly coincides with the period when the phenomena of 'enforced disappeared' was endemic in Manipur.
While there is no actual record of how many people disappear in the state every year, some human rights groups estimate that 300 go missing per year and most are victims of extra-judicial killings. Many of the bodies which are brought to the morgue in Imphal - there is only one such facility in the city - often bear marks of torture and murder and an overwhelming of them are never identified or claimed by their families.
A clubbed case of over 1,500 fake encounter killings, filed by the Extra-Judicial Execution Victim Families' Association, Manipur, and Human Rights Alert, is currently pending in the Supreme Court.
One reason why the forces could/can get away without any inquiry into such deaths and disappearances is because it has a very strong legal shield, the (in)famous the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (Afspa).
Under this Act, security forces are given unrestricted and unaccounted power to carry out their operations, once an area is declared disturbed. Even a non-commissioned officer is granted the right to shoot to kill based on mere suspicion that it is necessary to do so in order to "maintain the public order".
The people of Manipur are right in demanding a proper inquiry to establish identity of the human remains and figure out who was responsible for the deaths. This would give many families a sense of closure and open the opportunity for them to demand compensation from the state (if armed forces are found responsible).
Under pressure, the Manipur government on Monday decided to hand over the investigation into the recovery of eight human skulls and number of skeletons in Imphal to any of the central investigation agencies: the Central Bureau of Investigation, National Investigation Agency and the Central Forensic Science Library.
This is definitely positive news but it remains to be seen if the state government is ready to go the whole hog on this.