A Supreme Court-appointed committee has expressed concern in its interim report about relatives of those killed in the ethnic violence in Manipur facing “pressure” from civil society organisations to not accept the bodies and perform the last rites, The Indian Express reported on Tuesday.

The panel, which is examining the humanitarian aspects of the conflict in Manipur, submitted its thirteenth interim report to the court on November 20.

Manipur has been gripped by ethnic clashes between the Meitei and Kuki communities since early May. Over 175 people have been killed since the ethnic conflict broke out, according to the police records. Nearly 60,000 persons have been forced to flee their homes. The Kukis are in majority in the state’s hill districts while the Meiteis dominate the Imphal valley.

Bodies of more than half of those killed in the ethnic violence have been lying unclaimed in the state’s mortuaries, The Indian Express reported on Tuesday.

The panel informed the top court that 88 of the 94 unclaimed bodies in three mortuaries had been identified but civil society organisations had been “exerting pressure” on their relatives to not accept the bodies, The Times of India reported.

The panel, headed by former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Justice Gita Mittal, cited examples of the relatives willing to accept the bodies but that some civil society organisations have been “obstructing the performance of last rites” for their “vested interests” and to “compel authorities to meet unwarranted demands”, The Times of India reported.

“Apprehension was also expressed that there are elements interested in maintaining tension between communities and preventing restoration of peace and harmony in the state,” the committee said in its report. “For this reason, true and correct facts of the matter are also not being placed before the Supreme Court [by some of the petitioner non-governmental organisations].”

Civil society organisations are insisting on “unsuitable spots” for a collective burial that may trigger “constant mounting tensions” between Meiteis and Kukis, the committee reportedly said.

While the committee did not specify any incident, an announcement by the Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum in August about conducting a mass burial in Torbung area of Churachandpur district had become a flashpoint between the two communities.

The proposed burial site was in the “buffer zone” between the Meitei-dominated Bishnupur district and Churachandpur, where the Kukis live.

Violence erupted between the two groups with the Meiteis accusing the Kukis of “politics over dead bodies”. The Kuki groups accused the Manipur government of disrupting the last rites of the community.

The Union government had to intervene and ask the organisation to postpone the burial. The Manipur High Court also ordered status quo to be maintained at the site. The state government had proposed nine alternative burial sites.

The committee urged the Supreme Court to direct the civil society organisations to not interfere in the acceptance of ex-gratia and the bodies by the relatives for performing last rites.

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Manipur clashes: Why bodies are lying unclaimed in the state’s morgues

Court order

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud said that the state government, within one week, must communicate with the relatives of those whose bodies are still unclaimed

The relatives of bodies that have been identified and claimed may carry out last rites at any of the nine burial sites identified by the Manipur government “without interference from third parties”, Live Law quoted the chief justice as saying.

If bodies are identified and not claimed within one week, the administration can carry out the last rites, the court said while asking the state government to issue a public notice stating this.

The state government is permitted to carry out burials or cremations of unidentified bodies with due observance of religious rites, Chandrachud added. The collector and superintendent of police will be at liberty to take appropriate steps for maintenance of law and order.