How a Manipur town finally buried its dead, 632 days after they were killed
It briefly rained this Wednesday morning, clearing the air in the small, dusty town of Churachandpur. Someone mentioned that if it rains on a burial day, God doesn’t want the funeral to happen; if there is no rain, he is all right with it. But what if it rains and it is sunny throughout? On such an ominous day, people had begun gathering around the town’s morgue in the district hospital from the morning itself. They had come to pay their respects to the nine young men who had died almost two years ago.
It was the 632nd day since Manipur’s Churachandpur – Lamka for locals – a small town located 65km south of the state capital Imphal, witnessed the killing of eight young men and an 11-year-old boy during protests that turned violent. On August 31, 2015, protesters had taken to the streets of the town, against three bills passed by the Manipur government, which were considered to be ‘anti-tribal’ by the locals. Manipur’s hill areas, which includes Churachandpur, are home to the several tribes, including Thadou, Paite, Naga, Kuki, Hmar and Mizo. People who died were mostly Paite (the tribe dominates the town).
The bills – Protection of Manipur People Bill, Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (7th Amendment) Bill and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (2nd Amendment) Bill – were seen as an act of aggression by the valley people, the Meiteis, on the living and land rights of the state’s tribals. This is especially true of the first bill, which was considered as an attack on the identity of the tribals.
The Meitei people are the ethnic majority in Manipur and live in the valley, which houses 60 per cent of the state’s population, though it comprises only 10 per cent of the state’s area. The Meiteis had campaigned for a change in land laws because of the pressure of resources in the valley. In 2015, the state government took a similar view. But the hill tribes saw the land reforms and ‘protection of Manipur people’ as a ploy to take away their lands and livelihood.
In protest, after the violence and the killing, the town refused to bury its dead, in an attempt to force the government to agree to their demands. A first in the history of the Indian republic. The initial demands by the tribes included quashing of the bills, justice for the dead and a separate administration for the hill areas. After the killing of the nine men, women took over the protests, fearing that more men would be killed if the latter continued to lead the movement. Hindustan Times had reported on the issue earlier in February 2016.
On May 10 this year, an agreement was reached between the tribal leaders and the Manipur government in the form of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) – on condition that the dead should be buried by May 25.Though the first bill was withheld by the President last year, future action on the other two bills, the MoU said, would be taken in consultation with the stakeholders.
The Political Drama
The morgue is a dark and dingy hall housed a large cold storage, where the bodies have been lying for months. In the initial days, due to the lack of a cold storage, the bodies had already decomposed.
On the 24th of this month, the stench of decomposed human flesh filled the room as the bodies were taken out and placed inside fresh coffins covered in white with red crosses. “There was this emptiness inside me. I was shocked [when the body was finally kept in the coffin],” Chiinneihching (who uses only one name), mother of a victim, told us later.
The photos of the victims – ‘martyrs’ for the locals – were pasted on each coffin along with their names. Each coffin was placed on the back of a truck surrounded by family members and friends. The final journey had begun.
But before the trucks reached the burial ground, the coffins made a stopover at the Lamka public ground for a ceremony for people to pay their respects. The entire town turned up. The grand ceremony, complete with gun salute, and attended by the local political elite and tribal leaders, was symbolic of the political drama that had unfolded over the months.
The issue of non-burial was a sore point with the Centre. An elaborate political theatre was on show – featuring angry tribals, politicians, the armed forces, militants and the inter-tribe conflicts. The issue dragged on while the ‘people’s movement’ crumbled. Many locals feel that the tribals have received a bad deal with the MoU agreement.
“There has been no justice for what he [Robert] laid down his life,” said Biak Valte, brother of a victim. “If you look at the video, he was still breathing but the police didn’t do anything. They just watched him die.” The video shot by the police, on the day of protests, show a bloodied Robert lying on the ground gasping for breath.
Soon after the protests, a Joint Action Committee (JAC) was formed in September 2015 by the tribal bodies – Paite Tribe Council, Hmar Inpui, Kuki Inpui, Zoumi Council to name a few. It had the blessings of two militant groups (or Undergrounds/UGs as they are known locally) – Kuki National Organisation and United Peoples' Front (a conglomerate of eight militant groups).
The two groups have been under Suspension of Operations (SoO) or ceasefire since 2005 and 2008 respectively. The second point of the MoU mentions “all possible help and cooperation in the tripartite talks with the SoO groups”. The groups are also demanding a separate administration for the hill areas.
The inter-tribe conflicts came out in the open this year. In late 2015 itself, the UGs had asked for the burial of the dead, after initially supporting the no-burial stand. Months later, several tribal bodies started pulling out as well.
On a December night in 2016, one of the coffins was ‘stolen’ from the morgue. The body was of the 11-year-old Khaizamang, the youngest of the victims, who was a Kuki. He was buried by the Kukis in another part of town. The JAC blames the government for using militants to steal Khaizamang’s body.
Today, the women leaders feel cheated and sidelined by male leaders with their political and electoral ambitions. They allege that the MOU was signed without consulting them or the people who were protesting in Delhi. The women leaders or the ‘mothers’ group’ carried the movement almost entirely on their shoulders. They took out torch marches and attended the protest site every single day .
“Our leaders had promised a political solution but what solution is there in the MoU?” asks Nianglian, one of the women leaders. “Now, all of a sudden they are in a hurry to bury the bodies. We stood for justice for the martyrs and immediate extension of sixth schedule [Constitutional provisions for the administration of the tribal dominated areas]. We even resolved not to take any ex gratia as the state forces killed our sons. But our leaders keep changing their stand.”
On March 2, the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh on his election campaign had promised a CBI investigation and an honourable solution, if the party was voted to power. Soon after, BJP won in Manipur and formed the government. The party even won seats in the Christian-dominated hill areas for the first time. The BJP swooped in to solve the deadlock, despite the fact that for two years it was in power in the centre.
“The promises by the home minister were not even included in the MoU,” said Romeo Hmar, president of the Manipur Tribals’ Forum, Delhi, that has opposed the MoU agreement. “There is no talk of justice for the martyrs, separate administration and political solution, nothing exists in this agreement.”
Cornered on all fronts, the JAC signed an agreement almost similar to the one offered by the Congress government. The deal was a face saver, some said.
The burial ground was on a hill across the Khuga dam just outside the town. It overlooked the valley and a lake. (The MoU promises a memorial park on the site.) The burial service started in the afternoon, as scheduled.
Emotions ran high as the coffins arrived, led by a row of bikers with black flags, followed by a convoy of cars, buses and tempos. The coffins were in decorated trucks that also carried family members.
A common grave had been dug the same morning. Slowly, the coffins were placed on the side of the grave. Pastors from each family’s church said prayers while holding on to the crosses that had each victim’s name on it. Amid much commotion, the coffins were lowered and laid down next to each other.
As the sun set behind the hills, people laid flowers on the freshly-covered grave. Tribal leaders say that the movement will continue, but many saw the act of burial as a conclusion. With the families of the victims, the people’s movement perhaps found a closure too.