Earlier this week, when the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum, an outfit which represents the Kuki-Zo community, announced the mass burial of victims killed in Manipur’s ethnic clashes, it was a step towards closure for Helamboi Baite and her family. “We have waited for three months for this day,” she told Scroll.

For three months now, the body of her brother, Jamkhogin Baite, has been lying at the Churachandpur District Hospital – along with 34 bodies of others from the Kuki-Zo communities.

Jamkhogin Baite, a 38-old-year resident of Churachandpur who retired from the Indian Army’s Assam Regiment last year, was among the first victims of the ethnic conflict in Manipur that has claimed over 180 lives since May.

According to his sister Helamboi Baite, he was shot dead on May 3 evening at Zo Veng in Churachandpur district. Like many other Kuki-Zo families who lost their relatives in the ethnic clashes, Baite’s family, too, has not held a funeral.

“We did not perform last rites as our demands [including a separate administration for Kukis] have not met,” said Helamboi Baite. “If there is no justice, why will we bury the body? They have died for the community.”

But the proposed burial site has become a fresh flashpoint and yet another sign of the bitter, unofficial ethnic separation in the state. The burial site is in the “buffer zone” between the Meitei-dominated Bishnupur district and Churachandpur, where the Kuki-Zo people live.

Violence erupted between the two groups again on Thursday with the Meiteis accusing the Kukis of “politics over dead bodies”. The Kuki groups have accused the Manipur government of disrupting the last rites of the community. For now, the burial has been deferred after talks with the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Manipur High Court, too, in an order passed early on Thursday morning, asked for status quo to be maintained at the burial site.

Unclaimed bodies and a mass burial

Several bodies lie in the morgues of both Imphal and Churachandpur, unidentified and unclaimed. As Scroll had reported earlier, “With Kuki-majority hill areas turning into no-go zones for Meiteis – and vice versa – families have not been able to collect the remains of their kin.”

Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, representing the Kuki-Zo groups, on Tuesday told the Supreme Court that “118 tribal bodies are in the morgues”.

According to Churachandpur District Hospital authorities, apart from the 35 Kuki-Zo victims, four bodies belonging to the Meitei community, too, are at the hospital.

“After three months, as the ethnic war seems to go on, we decided to bury those bodies that we have here in Lamka [Churachandpur],” said Ginza Vaulzong, the spokesperson of the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum.

But the announcement of the mass burial at S Boljang village in Churachandpur district on Thursday sparked fresh tensions that culminated in violence.

On Wednesday, thousands of people from the two communities gathered on both sides of S Boljang village near Turbong along the national highway that connects Imphal with Churachandpur.

As the Kuki groups held public gatherings to pay tribute to the deceased at Tuibong peace ground in Churachandpur on Thursday, a large number of Meira Paibis, also known as Imas or the Mothers of Manipur, from various parts of Imphal Valley headed to Torbung to protest against the mass burial, said senior police officials.

Turbong, along the national highway connecting Imphal to Churachandpur, is where the violence first broke out on May 3 before spreading to other parts of the state.

While the Manipur High Court order came at 6 am on Thursday, the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum’s decision to defer the burial was communicated by 9 am. But by then, a large mob of Meiteis had already gathered at Kwakta, near the proposed burial site. There is a three-kilometre distance between Kwakta and Torbung.

Clashes erupted by 8.30am and went on till afternoon, said the police. Over 30 women were injured after a mob of Meitei women tried to march towards the Torbung area and security personnel fired tear gas.

Bishnupur deputy commissioner Lourembam Bikram told Scroll that security personnel were trying to push the groups back. “Additional forces have been deployed,” said Bikram.

Members of the Kuki community during a protest organised by the Kuki Students' Organisation in Chennai on August 2. Credit: PTI.

The dispute over the burial site

Since the ethnic violence erupted, Manipur has been unofficially split along ethnic lines. The Kuki-Zo groups claim S Boljang village lies in Churachandpur district, but the Manipur government has said it is state land.

Bishnupur deputy commissioner Bikram said the proposed burial site was an “unnecessary provocation”. “The other communities are not objecting to the burial, but it can be done at any other place, like the Churachandpur headquarters,” he said.

The Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity, a prominent Imphal Valley-based civil society organisation, alleged that the burial on state government land will further inflame violence. Khuraijam Athouba, spokesperson of the committee, said encroaching on state land is a violation of laws.

But there also appears to be another dimension to the Meiteis’ objection. Athouba said that creating a mass grave in the area from which Meiteis were evicted will provoke sentiments on both sides. “…[It will] also remain as a symbol of enmity between the two neighbouring villages,” he said. “The so-called Kuki leaders should not play politics over the dead bodies.”

Bishnupur deputy commissioner Bikram said platoons of companies have been deployed to stop the firing. “If we try to create a burial ground on state land without the approval of the state government, then we are again inviting trouble and firing from both sides,” he said.

Kuki groups, however, have criticised the Manipur government. “This Meitei government is disturbing us even during the last rites, even after killing us,” said Gracy Haokip, a Kuki student leader from Churachandpur.

Chief Minister N Biren Singh, who is a Meitiei, has been accused of favouring the Meiteis in the violent conflict.

“The victims’ families had said that until and unless there is a solution, there will be no burial,” said Haokip. “Now, they have come to an agreement that they can bury their bodies.”

Delayed again

For now, the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum has agreed to postpone the burial by five days, on a written assurance from the home ministry on its demands. It was not clear if the home ministry had accepted the tribal forum’s demands.

In an appeal on Thursday, Union Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai said that the “Government of India is seized of the issue of last rites of mortal remains of those killed in ethnic violence in Manipur”. Rai appealed to everyone to maintain peace and assured that the issue would be resolved “amicably” within seven days.

According to Forum spokesperson Vaulzong, the demands include the legalisation of the burial site and total separation from Manipur, among others.

In the hearing on Thursday, the Manipur High Court had allowed the Kuki-Zo groups to apply for the allotment of land for the burial within a week.

The forum has also said that since the burial will be delayed, the bodies of those from Kuki-Zo communities in Imphal should be brought to Churachandpur. “Our political demand – total separation from Manipur should be sped up,” said the Forum’s letter.