SC issues directions for disposal of bodies lying unclaimed in Manipur
81 bodies that have already been received by their next of kin, the court directed, would be given their last rites at any of the identified nine burial sites.
Stressing that it “cannot let the pot keep boiling” in Manipur over dead bodies, the Supreme Court on Tuesday issued directives for the burial or cremation of all those killed in the ethnic violence in the state, including 88 that have been identified, but not claimed by their next of kin, by December 11.
Either the relatives of the deceased can accept the bodies and perform their last rites at any of the nine burial sites identified by the Manipur government, or the state can go ahead and do the same in accordance with the municipal law, the court ordered. The northeastern state, which has been overrun by ethnic strife between the Meitei and Kuki communities since early May, has recorded 175 deaths in the violence.
A bench, headed by Chief Justice of India Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud, further rejected the idea of mass burials, observing that it does not want the situation to deteriorate by allowing the burials to be converted into a form of protest. Most of the 88 bodies identified but yet to be claimed by their families are Kuki-Zomis and are mainly Christians.
“Frankly, it appears that the idea only is to keep the pot boiling... But we don’t want the pot to keep boiling over the dead bodies. Replies, affidavits and counter affidavits etc... all that will only delay it. We can’t keep these bodies in the mortuaries indefinitely,” said the bench, also comprising justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra.
It directed the state government will intimate the relatives of the 88 dead people, presently preserved in state mortuaries, by December 4. “The state administration shall issue communication to the next of kin on or before Monday next (December 4), stating that they are permitted to carry out last rites with requisite religious observance, within the next one week at any of the nine sites designated by the state (December 11),” recorded the court order.
Referring to the pertinent provisions of the Manipur Municipalities Act that provides for the disposal of dead bodies which are unclaimed, the order added: “The state government is also permitted to issue a public notice that bodies which are identified but not claimed will be buried as per the timeline mentioned above...orderly arrangement can be made for dignified last rites.”
Eighty-one bodies that have already been received by their next of kin, the court directed, would be given their last rites at any of the identified nine burial sites without any influence by third parties.
Taking note of a ground situation report by the Supreme Court-appointed committee that civil society organisations (CSOs) active in the state were exerting “tremendous pressure” on relatives not to accept the 88 bodies, the court ordered that while the state administration shall ascertain observance of due religious rites of the deceased, the collectors and superintendents of police of the districts concerned shall also take all suitable steps to ensure that last rites are performed “without let or hindrance”.
“Bearing in mind the fact that the violence in Manipur started in May, it would not appropriate or proper to keep the bodies which have not been identified (six) or not claimed (88) indefinitely in the mortuaries,” recorded the court order, also asking the state administration to facilitate identification of dead bodies and their access to the next of kin.
The court passed its order after taking cognisance of the October 21 report by the committee, which is headed by former chief justice of the Jammu and Kashmir high court Gita Mittal and was formed by it in January, complaining that some CSOs were preventing the families from receiving the bodies of their loved ones despite repeated entreaties by the state government and assurance of all logistical support.
“Some CSOs are opposing and obstructing the performance of last rites by relatives on account of vested interests, and even in order to derive mileage and to compel authorities to meet unwarranted demands. Apprehension was also expressed that there are elements interested in maintaining tension between communities and preventing restoration of peace and harmony in the state,” stated the report.
The report called it unfortunate that CSOs are insisting on mass burials at unsuitable spots, which it said will serve as a source for constant mounting of tension between communities in Manipur and prevent restoration of normalcy.
It also rued that CSOs have placed 50 empty coffins right outside the office of the deputy commissioner of Churachandpur, which was the epicentre of the strife, which is not only a constant source of angst and tension for the inhabitants of the district but also is extremely demoralising for the public officials who have been making every possible effort to bring normalcy to the state and its people.
Accepting the report, the bench on Tuesday asked solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who was appearing for the Centre, to see to it that coffin boxes are removed immediately even as it noted that the dead bodies cannot be allowed to remain in mortuaries for a further indefinite period. Mehta, on his part, urged the bench to pass an appropriate order to clarify that when the relatives of a deceased person are willing to accept the dead body for the last rites, no organisation or a third party can create impediments.
Senior counsel Colin Gonsalves, appearing for some of the PIL petitioners and tribal groups from Manipur, however opposed any direction regarding disposal of dead bodies without giving him an opportunity to respond to the committee’s report and talking to the relatives of the 88 deceased whose bodies are yet to be claimed.
Gonsalves also pressed for mass burial of the deceased in accordance with tribal traditions, but the bench shot down his plea. “Frankly, it appears that the idea only is to keep the pot boiling. For the last 10 minutes, while we have been trying to pass an order, there have only obstructions and attempts to delay the matter...it has pained us,” the bench told the senior lawyer.
A proposed mass burial of Kuki tribal victims was postponed in August after hectic parleys between the tribal groups, security forces, the state government, and the Union home ministry, even as high court also ordered “status quo” at the burial site.
During the proceedings, the bench also took note of committee’s another report, citing pressure from the CSOs and tribal organisations in Manipur because of which at least 38 families of the deceased have shown unwillingness to receive the ex-gratia of ₹10 lakh each.
The bench asked SG Mehta to devise modalities, including direct benefit transfer (DBT) into their accounts, so that compensation to these families could be disbursed.
On a complaint against road blockade on a highway, the court said that the state requires a “healing touch”, adding a judicial order may not resolve such issues.
The court, in a separate plea, asked the Centre to examine a request by 284 students affected by the ethnic violence in Manipur seeking relocation to central universities. The matter will be heard next on December 4.
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