Supreme Court asks Manipur to ensure last rites of violence victims

169 bodies remaining in mortuary since May following tussle between the State and civil society groups over burial/cremation sites

November 28, 2023 06:38 pm | Updated November 29, 2023 01:44 am IST - New Delhi

Supreme Court said of the 169 identified bodies, 81 have been claimed by the next of kin while 88 have not been claimed. File

Supreme Court said of the 169 identified bodies, 81 have been claimed by the next of kin while 88 have not been claimed. File | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Months after the ethnic clashes in Manipur snuffed out 175 lives, the Supreme Court witnessed an acrimonious slanging match between the State government and lawyers representing civil society organisations on Tuesday over the last rites of 169 identified bodies lying in mortuaries since May.

“We cannot keep the bodies in the mortuary indefinitely… The violence happened in May,” Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud, heading a three-judge Bench, pointed out. They deserved a dignified farewell, the court noted and directed the Manipur government to allow the families of the 81 identified victims to do last rites at a government-identified site by December 4.

The Justice Gita Mittal Committee, appointed by the Supreme Court to bring a “healing touch” to the State, had said that the civil society groups are “unfortunately insisting on the burial of bodies at unsuitable sites, causing a great source of mounting tension. These sites are on the inter-district boundary between the hills districts and the valley”.

In Tuesday’s order, the Supreme Court said the State should ensure that no third party intervened in the performance of the last rites of the victims.

The Justice Mittal Committee had said that of the 169 bodies identified, 81 have been claimed by families, while 88 still remain unclaimed.

The panel’s October 21 report accused civil society organisations of trying to “prevent the next of kin of the dead to take their bodies for their last rites”.

Nine sites identified

Earlier, Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta said civil society organisations had no claim over the bodies or a say in where they should be buried or cremated.

He said the State has already identified nine burial/cremation sites for the bodies. “The next of kin have agreed to bury the bodies in one of the sites. Nobody else can have anything to say on it,” Mr. Mehta said.

Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, for the Manipur Tribal Forum Delhi, said “we will bury them all in a single burial site according to our Kuki custom… They did not die as Mr. X or Y, they died as a tribe that was exterminated. So, we will do it collectively”.

Advocate Vrinda Grover, also for petitioners, said “we have no information about the nine sites, about the 88 bodies which have been identified but not claimed, what is standard operating procedure?”

Mr. Mehta asked who this “we” were.

“The next of kin knows, you need not know. The next of kin have been informed in writing,” the Solicitor-General said.

Mr. Gonsalves burst out at one point in the hearing, turning to Mr. Mehta, “I am the victim… you are the assailant… don’t bully us”.

He and senior advocate Huzefa Ahmadi urged the court to share the committee’s report, saying the “State has leaked the report to the media… we do not have it”.

“Frankly, it appears the effort is only to keep the pot boiling,” the Chief Justice remarked.

‘Reach out to others’

Directing the Manipur government to ensure last rites of 81 identified and claimed victims at any one of the nine sites by December 4, the court said the State should also reach out to relatives of the 88 dead, who have been identified but not claimed as yet, by the same date. If no relatives claim the body, the State was free to carry out the last rites as per the law.

The court permitted the State to carry out burial/cremation of unidentified bodies with due observance of religious rites.

The court ordered District Collectors and police chiefs to take measures to ensure the peaceful conduct of the last rites.

The Bench ordered the State to take DNA samples from the bodies as criminal investigation about the circumstances of their deaths were still on.

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