For a year now, nine victims of police firing have been waiting for a burial in Manipur’s Churachandpur, as the town and district sit in protest, demanding a separate state. Esha Roy on the politics of the dead, and the politics of the living. Photographs by Deepak Shijagurumayum
HE WAS an obedient son, remembers 42-year-old Nemmeilhing. The evening of August 31, 2015, was an exception. Ignoring her advice to play indoors, as there were violent protests on the streets, 10-year-old Khaizamang left home, telling his mother, “Police only ever shoot at bad people.” Khaizamang now lies in a box, in a large cold storage, of a small morgue, in Churachandpur town in Manipur’s southwest corner. The bright green doors of the morgue open to 12 such boxes, nine of them occupied with those who, like Khaizamang, were killed in police firing that evening. It’s Day 361. All are still awaiting burial.
The deaths occurred when an agitation in Manipur’s hilly areas, protesting against three Bills brought in by the state government to meet the Inner Line Permit demand, turned violent and police opened fire. In police action across town that evening, scores others were injured. The nine won’t get a funeral anytime soon, as Churachandpur protests against the killings and demands ‘Separation from Manipur State’. Sometime back, a poster with the demand was also stuck on the wall of the Churachandpur police station outside which three of the nine were killed. Police haven’t brought it down.
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The sun has bleached the black flags — hoisted in front of every house in Churachandpur as part of the protest — a dull grey. The few new ones can be seen on vehicles. Posters across town bear photos of the nine “martyrs”. In front of the morgue with the bodies, at Churachandpur district hospital, women sit under a shamiana, praying.
“For the first couple of weeks, we ensconced the coffins in ice at the morgue. Everyday, the ice would be replaced to keep the bodies from decomposing,” says Benjamin Vualnam of the Churachandpur Joint Action Committee. Melons were brought in from across the district, cut and spread across the morgue to diminish the stench, as locals believe the fruit helps fight odours. But soon, the bodies started swelling, and so did the coffins they were kept in. Larger coffins were made and the bodies transferred into them. “Then the hospital as well as the community got together to order a cold storage,” says Benjamin. The state government sanctioned the funds on the hospital’s request.
In the cold storage, the photographs of the dead and their details are pasted on the enclosures holding the bodies. A temporary electrical line, provided by the district administration, ensures that the room has power at all times, in a district where long outages are common. Inside the morgue, the hum of machines keeping the room cold is unbroken; outside the chanting of the prayers.
“In our tradition, we hold condolences and prayers till a body is laid to rest. Since these bodies are yet to be buried, we have been holding prayers every day for the past year,” says Benjamin. The women gathered from across the town under the shamiana are joined by a pastor. Behind the podium lie nine symbolic mauve coffins with the martyrs’ photos on them. Speeches about the “injustice” done to the people of Churachandpur are interspersed with readings of passages from the Bible.
In another part of town, on one of Churachandpur’s main grounds, men and women sit under another shamiana, as they have done for the past year. Speeches are delivered under a sign that reads, ‘Hills & Valley as separate entities: the new normal, learn to live with it’. Pictures of the nine dead are put up at this shamiana too. There has been no probe into the police action, says Churachandpur Superintendent of Police Mangkhogin. “The state government had sent a senior IAS officer to conduct a magisterial inquiry. But he was gheraoed by a mob and made to leave. There has been no inquiry since.”
The black flag hanging outside a home on Dorcas Veng Lane in New Lamka is larger than any of the others. Before it all went dark, remembers Ngaikhan Ching, 43, the sky turned a vivid red that night. The evening of August 31, 2015, her son H Paulianmang had just returned home after a football match. Football was his passion, and the 22-year-old was a member of the local Rangers United club. He was hungry and Ching had quickly served him dinner.
It was then that the ‘Paraudak (alarm)’ was sounded. Ching remembers it being around 5 pm. Electric poles and steel pillars across town were beaten with sticks to sound the alarm. One by one, residents, who had either finished dinner or were just sitting down to eat, came out and a mob started gathering. Protesters started raising slogans against tribal ministers and MLAs, accusing them of selling them out. Paulianmag had rushed out too, joining his friends and others headed for the house of MLA Vungzoin Valte, who lived a stone’s throw away. Soon, the news spread. The MLA’s house had been set afire. Ching remembers seeing a red blaze in the direction of Valte’s wooden house, as well as the air filling up with smoke.
“I got worried and called him up. Paulianmag reassured me, said lots of people had come to see what was happening, that he was just one in a crowd,” says Ching. That was the last conversation she had with him. “A while later, the sun went down and the fire seemed to burn brighter. The entire sky became red. I called him up again. He didn’t pick up,” she says. Ching turned on the television, but the cable connection had got burnt. Then, the neighbours rushed in and broke the news. “They didn’t tell me he was dead, just that he was injured and in a nearby hospital… I had spoken to him only an hour ago.”
She spent a night in dread, as movement on the roads was forbidden. The moment it was dawn, Ching rushed to the hospital. “Paulianmag had already been moved to the morgue,” she says quietly. “He had been shot in the stomach. He wasn’t even a protester, he was simply a spectator.” Paulianmang was the eldest of Ching’s three children. Since her husband died in an accident, the family had struggled to make ends meet, and Paulianmag helped out. Sister Kim, 20, says even when he was in school, he would clean the school classrooms and toilets on weekends for money. During the summer break, he would make clay flowerpots and sell them. The money helped pay for her younger son’s education, Ching says.
“Although his dream was to become a professional footballer, he had told me he would try out for the Army so that things became easier for us financially,” she adds. Khamsianmuan Munluah, 22, was the first to fall that night. He got caught up in the violence that erupted after police reportedly hit a protester with a rifle, injuring him badly, and allegedly struck another with a machete. The angry protesters rushed towards the police station. Police closed the gates, allegedly climbed the sentry posts and opened fire. Khamsianmuan and two others, including the 10-year-old boy, were killed there.
Eyewitnesses have claimed Khamsianmun did not die immediately, but no one dared approach him amid the shooting. “Police roamed around the dead and injured, pointing their guns as if they were terrorists, just to confirm that they were really dead,” claims Benjamin. On the other side of town from Paulianmang’s house, 24-year-old Chingneihhoih Munluah now lives in a house on the plot of land she had bought for younger brother Khamsianmuan. Owning land was a big deal for the family, including the siblings and their parents, who lived in a rented shack earlier. While Khamsianmuan used to work as a driver, Chingneihhoih had left home for Chennai at the age of 19 to work as a hostess at a small restaurant. The plot was bought with the money Chingneihhoih put together in four years. She gifted it to Khamsianmuan in the first week of August 2015. By the end of the month, he was dead.
With the money they received as compensation, Khamsianmuan’s parents built the modest home on the plot where the family lives now. “Khamsianmuan never got to enjoy it,” says Chingneihhoih, breaking down. Since she came from Chennai on hearing the news, she has been out of work. Henlalson Gangte, 18, a carpenter, was on his way home when he reportedly got caught up in the mob going to set MLA Valte’s house on fire. He was among those killed, believed to have been trapped in the burning house. Just 12 days before the incident, Gangte had married his childhood sweetheart, soon after she had delivered his child. The one-year-old now lives with Gangte’s family.
Nemmeilhing, the mother of the 10-year-old victim, had struggled to raise her six children without a father and had to give away four of them to an orphanage. She doted on the two youngest she kept with her, including 10-year-old Khaizamang and a daughter. She remembers how afraid she had been on hearing about the death of a boy in protests in Imphal. “We heard police were coming to Churachandpur too. I told Khaizamang to play indoors… He told me police only ever shoot at bad people,” she says. The father of another victim, Lamkhenthang, 43, says his son saw Khaizamang being shot and rushed to help him. “Lamkhenthang was himself shot in the stomach.” K Ginzalian, 69, says Lamkhenthang told him Khaizamang’s stomach had ripped open and his guts fallen out. “Lamkhenthang pushed the intestines back in, held them with one hand, lifted the boy with the other, and took him to hospital. The boy died that day, my son died three days later,” says Ginzalian.
The past few years, Imphal valley has been seeing violent protests seeking an Inner Line Permit (ILP) system in Manipur, similar to the one in Nagaland, Arunachal and Mizoram. Once introduced by the British to ostensibly protect their commercial interests such as in tea and oil, the ILP is a special permit required to enter a state, including by Indians. It is now meant to protect indigenous, tribal people and their culture from migrant influx. In March 2015, the Manipur Assembly finally passed the Regulation of Visitors, Tenants and Migrant Workers Bill, making it compulsory for all non-Manipuris entering the state to register themselves with the government. In a rare such statement, Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh admitted that the Bill had been brought under duress, due to the violent agitations.
However, the Bill was rejected by the agitators, who demanded nothing less than an ILP. So the state government introduced three Bills in place of the earlier one, which were passed unanimously on August 31, 2015, the same day as they were introduced. These Bills were the Protection of Manipur People’s Bill, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reform (7th Amendment) Bill, and the Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill. The Bill relating to shops and establishments was most like the original Bill, as it called for registration of non-Manipuris in the state. The Protection of Manipur People’s Bill sought to give the state the power to determine who was a Manipuri and who was not, with the rider that those who had come to live in the state before 1952 would be considered Manipuri (Manipur became a state in 1972). The land reforms Bill said a person could own land in the state only once the government had established his or her “authenticity” as a Manipuri. The three legislation left almost the entire Manipur in turmoil. The Imphal valley remained in shutdown, still seeking the ILP, with the protests even leading to the death of a 17-year-old. Meanwhile, tribals across hilly areas such as Churachandpur said the Bills, ostensibly passed to protect their rights, were against their interests. The tribals were opposed to the government holding the authority to decide who is a Manipuri, and feared that using the powers vested by the other two Bills, it could take away their land and properties.
Within two hours of the three Bills being tabled in the Assembly on August 31, 2015, Churachandpur erupted. Protesters set about attacking the homes of politicians, and drove back police with stone-pelting. The first house to be hit was that of Manipur Health Minister Phungzathan Tonsing, a local resident, with protesters breaking down the perimeter brick wall. The Health Minister and his family were at the time in Imphal. The once opulent building stands empty on the main road as a sign of that evening’s rage. Banned from entering Churachandpur district, Tonsing has not come home in the past year. After the death of nine that night, businesses, shops and schools in Churachandpur remained shut for three months. Protests were held round the clock and the highway that links Imphal city to Churachandpur town was blocked.
The President later held the Bills, expressing reservations, especially on the first legislation, forcing the state government to go back to the drawing board. The Manipur government is expected to table a new legislation, tentatively called the Non-Locals Regulation Bill, soon. In monitoring and regulating the entry of non-Manipuris in the state, it is quite similar to the first Bill, tabled in March last year. Sang Lethil of the Churachandpur Joint Action Committee says the new Bill is simply “old wine in a new bottle”. “The Protection of Manipur People’s Bill was the most problematic, because the communal government of Manipur would have got to decide who is a Manipuri or not. Tomorrow, they can tell one of us we are not Manipuri. Even though that has been set aside, we do not trust the Manipur government,” Lethil says.
He also claims they were “never opposed” to the ILP. “It would have protected us as well. We were opposed to those three Bills. But now it has gone beyond that.” Calling the chance for reconciliation slim, Lethil says, “What we want now is a complete separate administration from the Manipur government.” Lethil also claims that people from Churachandpur are now under attack in Imphal. “Cars parked with Churachandpur numberplates have had their tyres slashed… How can we live together then?” With the Naga Peace accord details being worked out, there is a sense of urgency in Churachandpur, Lethil adds. “The accord will cover the four Naga hill districts. That will leave only (non-Naga) Churachandpur as a tribal district with the Manipur government. We don’t want that.”
Condemning the nine deaths, the Director of the NGO Human Rights Alert, Babloo Loitongbam, says the loss of lives was unacceptable but also blames the tribal leadership. “It isn’t just the ILP. There is anger in the district against misgovernance, against their own representatives.” Pointing out that the Bills were passed unanimously, Loitongbam adds, “If there was such opposition, why did the tribal leaders give assent to them? The ILP is about protecting all the indigenous communities, including our brothers and sisters in Churachandpur. Their representatives abdicated their responsibility.”
Vice-president and spokesperson of state Congress N Biren says the protests in Churachandpur and the refusal to bury the dead are politically motivated, adding that some people from Myanmar may be behind the agitation. “The three Bills which had led to the incident last year have already been withdrawn because the President refused clearance… Why aren’t they burying the dead then? What are they waiting for?”