Tree planks and bones: Manipur families burn and bury remains of kin killed in conflict

In the Churachandpur hills, 87 bodies belonging to Kuki-Zo tribes were laid to rest on December 20, five days after 41 bodies of the deceased lying in Imphal morgues were airlifted to the town Kuki-Zo tribes refer to as Lamka.
87 bodies from Kuki-Zo tribes were laid to rest in Churachandpur hills on December 20.
87 bodies from Kuki-Zo tribes were laid to rest in Churachandpur hills on December 20.By Special Arrangement.

At the crack of dawn on Friday, December 15, an unusual funeral was underway at Khumbong Mayai Leikai in Manipur’s Imphal West. Instead of corpses, two human-shaped planks made by Meitei Brahmin priests out of leaves and straws from a Pang-gong (Flames of the Forest) tree were placed on the pyres and burned. The Hindu ritual was more symbolic, to help depart the souls of 47-year-old Atom Samarendra and Yumkhaibam Kirankumar, who have been missing without a trace since May 6. 

The two Meitei men, who were last seen at the Olympic Park in Sangaithel hillock in Imphal West, have been accepted as dead by their families after the rituals conducted last week. On the same day, 73 bodies that had been lying scattered in morgues across the state were airlifted to the respective home districts after the Supreme Court ordered the Manipur government to make the arrangements. Of these, four bodies were brought to Imphal. One of the four families declined to receive the body of their kin because they had already conducted the Pang-gong funeral ritual in absentia, said Atom Nanda, a member of the Imphal West Students’ Club and cousin of one of the missing men, Atom Samarendra. 

Despite a massive hunt by the police and state government to locate Atom Samarendra and Yumkhaibam Kirankumar, their whereabouts remain unknown to date. “The family elders decided to perform the last rites so that their souls can find peace,” Nanda told The News Minute. “But my bhabhi and I still believe he will come back one day. We cannot accept he’s gone until we see his body.” 

The two are among 27 non-tribals reported missing since the ethnic conflict broke out on May 3 between Meiteis and the Kuki-Zo tribes. Nandan told TNM that his brother’s final rites were the sixth in the valley to have been conducted in the absence of a body. “The families of two other boys who died also performed the same ritual because they saw the video of them getting killed,” he said. “It went viral but they did not get the body.”

In the Churachandpur hills, 87 bodies were finally laid to rest six feet under on December 20, five days after 41 bodies of the deceased lying in Imphal morgues were airlifted to the town Kuki-Zo tribes refer to as Lamka. The Kuki-Zo tribes had waited months for the bodies lying rotting in Imphal to bury them along with the 46 that were preserved in the Churachandpur hospital morgue, as per tribal customary laws. The mass ceremony entailed songs like Igam Hilou Ham (Is this not my land?), mass prayers and gun salute attended by thousands in the Tribal Martyrs’ park.

While many of the dead are victims of the violence, LS Mangboi died a martyr defending his homeland and the Kuki-Zo demand for separating their territories from the state of Manipur. The singer and composer of Igam Hilou Ham (which has over a million hits on YouTube) died in the line of duty as a village defence volunteer, one of the many hundreds of civilians who picked up arms to protect tribal hills villages from attacks by Meitei extremist groups. 

Lhingboi, his wife, said her husband died from government-licensed weapons that were stolen from the police armouries by Meitei radical groups. “More than 10 splinter mortar bombs were found on his head," she told TNM. "He was buried with those splinters.” 

As a single parent to three sons and two daughters now, Lhingboi is mentally preparing for the challenges ahead. She said she had no regrets “becoming a widow for the cause of the Kuki-Zo nation because I strongly believe his sacrifice will not go in vain.” 

By Special Arrangement.
Gun salute at the funeral ceremony in Tribal Martyrs’ park.
Gun salute at the funeral ceremony in Tribal Martyrs’ park.By Special Arrangement.

The conflict that broke out over a Manipur High Court order recommending Scheduled Tribe status for the Meiteis, who are the ethnic majority in the state, has shown no sign of simmering down eight months down the line despite the death of 178 people reported by officials till October. Instead, the state has been sharply divided along ethnic lines in administration (including the state police) and geographically with buffer zones dividing the tribal-dominated hills and the Meitei-ruled valley. The Kuki-Zo minority tribes, who make up 14% of the state population, suffered in greater numbers with 77 of them dying in early May as opposed to 11 Meiteis, as per a Reuters report.

A majority of these deaths from the Kuki Zo community were in the Imphal valley, where attacks on tribal neighbourhoods started in the evening of May 3 after trouble broke out in the Kuki-dominated Churachandpur hill district. 

WhatsApp-fuelled rumours gave way to Meitei mobs, many of them accompanied by state police forces, rampaging through neighbourhoods looking for houses and residents belonging to the Kuki Zo tribes.

Last Saturday, 28 bodies coined as ‘tribal martyrs’ were buried at the Martyrs Cemetery at Phaijang village in Kangpokpi hill district. However, the tribal custom of allowing families to take the bodies home for condolence and see them one last time could not be followed due to the aggressive decomposition of the corpses, said L Singsit, the general secretary of the Committee on Tribal Unity (COTU), Sadar Hills. 

Unlike the Meitei families who conducted last rites with tree planks, the Kuki Zo tribal families felt a wave of relief after burying their relatives. Paotinthang Hangsing could not eat or sleep for months until his daughter, Florence, reached him on Saturday. Florence Hangsing and Olivia Chongloi were brutally raped and killed in a car wash centre in Imphal where they had been working for over a year.

“But I carried the coffin. It felt heavy,” he told TNM, aggrieved that he was not allowed to open the coffin and see his beloved daughter’s face. “After her decent and honourable burial, I am very relieved and can finally accept she is no longer with us.” 

By Special Arrangement.

Also, buried that day were 7-year-old Tonsing Hangsing, his mother Meena and aunt Lydia who were burnt alive in an ambulance in June en route to Imphal after a sniper bullet hit Tonsing. His mother and aunt belonged to the Meitei community. Tonsing’s father, Joshua felt a mix of pain and relief when his deceased wife and son came home in the Indian Air Force chopper, breaking down on the side of their coffins. He knew that only their skeletal remains were left inside.

“I was in pain that even an innocent child who needs urgent medical treatment was not spared,” he said. “But I am relieved that they can now rest peacefully in the arms of God.”

While many of the Meitei families expressed their anguish over the 27 missing bodies, the Kuki Zo families were upset over the inordinate delay in burying their dead, with little hope of justice from the BJP government. According to the Indigenous Tribal Leader Forum, 11 Kuki Zo bodies remain missing. With the valley remaining out of bounds for the Kuki Zo tribes, the families of the deceased had long pleaded with state and central authorities for the bodies to be handed over to them to no avail. In November, however, the SC formed judicial committee submitted that NGOs had prevented the burial of the bodies lying in Imphal morgues by pressuring families ostensibly to keep the ethnic tension boiling.

By Special Arrangement.

Kuki-Zo NGOs strongly objected to the report, saying the committee had no contact or discussion with them, which they attributed to the state government, which has openly shown their support for the Meitei majority. Singsit of COTU told TNM that they had never agreed to bury their dead in Torbung Bangla, a village in the periphery of Churachandpur hill district and Bishnupur in the valley that was earlier being considered as a burial site for the slain Kuki-Zo. 

Inaotan Lourembam, Lydia’s husband, and also from the Meitei community, said that their Haosapu (village chief), area leaders, and Kuki-Zo NGOs had not pressured him in any way but rather consoled him and his family. He said that she was three months pregnant at the time of her death.

“She was killed while showing humanity at its best, and the same humanity brought her home and gave her a decent burial,” he told TNM.

Neither Lourembam nor Hangsing felt they could hope for justice from either the state government, which is accused of ethnic bias by the Kuki-Zo or Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has not visited the state to date. 

“Modi's silence over Manipur's violence makes me angrier than the delay in burying my loved ones,” said Joshua. “Had he spoken seriously about the violence, my son and my wife could have been buried much earlier, and the victim numbers lesser.”

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