Naorem Prakash Singh’s family last saw him on May 11. The 42-year-old, according to his wife Naorem Sanatombi, had gone looking for rice in the granary attached to their home.

The family at the time had been living in Sanatombi’s parents’ place in the town of Nambol in Manipur’s Bishnupur district. Their own home, around 40 km southwards, in a village called Torbung Bangla in the same district, had come under attack from a mob on May 3, when ethnic clashes had erupted between the Meitei and Kuki communities.

Torbung Bangla, precariously located along the border of the Kuki-dominated hills and the Meitei-majority Imphal valley, had come under an onslaught so severe that it was almost completely obliterated in a matter of hours.

By May 11, the initial ferocity of the violence seemed to have subsided. Prakash Singh, his family said, thought it was a good time to make a quick trip back home to retrieve what the mob had left behind. He was supposed to be back in a few hours – but he has not returned to date.

“We heard that he was captured by the Kukis,” said Sanatombi. “But there is no confirmation.”

A tragedy that grows by the day

The toll of the relentless violence that has continued for nearly three months in Manipur has been enormous. In addition to the thousands of people who have been rendered homeless, more than 140 people have been killed.

But many fear the death toll may be even higher.

According to a status report filed by the Manipur government in the Supreme Court on July 9, 17 people are officially “missing”.

“They could have been killed during the violence,” a senior state police official told Scroll. “But, as we have not recovered the bodies, we marked them as missing.”

A policing crisis

For the families of these people, the uncertainty and lack of closure have been torturous. The police are often not in a position to help because the ethnic fault lines that the clashes have cracked wide open mean coordinated investigation encompassing both the hill and valley areas has become next to impossible.

Take, for instance, the case of Prakash Singh. His wife has even met Chief Minister N Biren Singh. While Biren Singh assured her of help, it has meant little tangible action. The reason: police officials based in the valley, where the family has filed a missing complaint, are reluctant to venture into the hills.

“Whenever we go to Bishnupur police, the police say they won’t be able to go to the Churachandpur area to investigate and question the people there,” said Sanatombi. “There is no update or information about him. We don’t know whether he is alive or not. If he is dead, the government should give us the body or at least acknowledge it.”

A police official in Bishnupur admitted to investigations being hindered because of the ethnic divide. “We are not able to go there [to the hill districts] to corroborate or record statements,” the police official said.

In the hills, too, some people have been missing for months now – and the police there are having to contend with similar problems.

According to the Churachandpur police, 14 Kuki people have been reported missing by their relatives.

“These are either based on zero FIRs or missing reports filed by the relatives of the people,” a senior police official of the district told Scroll.

A zero First Information Report is a provision that allows any police station to accept and register a complaint and then forward it to the station which covers the site of the purported incident.

Police personnel in Bishnupur. Credit: AFP

Missing in the records, dead to families

Among the 14 are “at least three [who have] been confirmed dead, but bodies are still missing”, said the police official.

Indeed, there are several cases of people being officially categorised as missing, although families claim to have come across visual evidence of their loved one being killed.

On July 19, the families of two “missing” people belonging to the Meitei community performed their last rites even though their corpses could not be retrieved and police are yet to officially declare them dead.

The two men identified as Irengbam Chingkheinganba Meitei, 24, and Sagolshem Ngaleiba Meitei, 31 had been missing since July 4.

They are from Sekmaijin Khunou area of Kakching district in the Imphal valley.

Their families conducted their last rites on July 19 – without their bodies.

“Insead of their bodies, we used wood from the panggong tree,” said Malemthoiba Sagolshem, a cousin of Sagolshem Ngaleiba Meitei. “In our tradition, we call it Leiron Chanba and it is done when bodies are not found.”

According to their families, they had seen a video of the duo being killed by people from the Kuki side.

Sagolshem said the two of them were “village volunteers” – on July 4, they had gone to Kanglatombi, a village on the foothills, some 60 km away from their home, to help the locals there repulse an attack by the Kukis.

The Kakching police said the alleged killings took place in the Kuki-dominated Kangpokpi district.

“They were last reported to be heading towards Kangpokpi as per the last communication with their families, “ said an officer of the Hiyanglam police station, where the families have filed a missing report. “We can’t confirm their deaths as bodies have not yet been found.”

Living on hope

Many families, though, continue to cling to hope.

In Imphal, the families of Phijam Hemanjit and Luwangbi Linthoingambi Hijam, both of them 17 and Meitei, have been doing sit-in protests in the city, demanding that the state government track down the whereabouts of the missing people.

On July 6, Hemanjit had picked Hijam up from her coaching centre before going towards Moirang, a picturesque town, and home to the famous Loktak Lake, not too far from Churachandpur.

The police said they have found CCTV footage where the couple can seen in that area.

“They were in love,” said Phijam Ibungobi, Hemanjit’s father.“It has been almost 20 days, they have not called,” he said. “We suspect that they have been captured by the Kuki groups.”

Ibungobi said he had filed a complaint with the city’s Lamphel police.

Kulajit Hijam, the father of Hijam, said he had also filed a missing report at the Imphal police station on July 6 itself.

“We have met both Governor Anusuiya Uikey and Chief Minister N Biren Singh requesting them to find the duo,” Hijam said.

The police seem to be fearing the worst. “We suspect that they might have been killed between July 8 and July 11,” Ingoucha Singh, the officer-in-charge of the Imphal police station, told Scroll.

However, Singh clarified that no bodies had been recovered yet.

He added, “Our investigation officer can’t travel to the Kuki areas. So we have sent a proposal to hand over the case to a central agency.”