In Manipur, the Dead Will Decide Who the Living Will Vote for

For more than 550 days now, eight bodies have been waiting for burial in Manipur’s Churachandpur district.

For the local Paite tribals here, these are the martyrs who fought for their identity and rights. They were killed in police firing and the violence that erupted amid anti-government protests in Churachandpur on 31 August 2015 . Their relatives have refused to bury the bodies till their demand for self-governance and a separate state is fulfilled.

A 360-degree view of the freezers that contain the eight bodies in the morgue in the Churachandpur District Hospital. (Photo: Tridip K Mandal/The Quint)

"Separation from Manipur is the only solution". "We’ll defend our land to the end, it’s all that we have". These slogans can be seen on every street in the district. A grim reminder of a cause for which blood flowed on the streets of Churachandpur.

On 31 August 2015, the Ibobi Singh-led state government passed three bills to primarily appease the Meitei population, who were demanding an ‘Inner Line Permit’ to restrict and regulate the entry of ‘outsiders’ (Indians included) into Manipur.

The relatives of the dead have put up a shed outside the morgue in Churachandpur. Condolence meeting and prayers are held here everyday. (Photo: Tridip K Mandal/The Quint)

The tribals of the hill districts allege that the bills were introduced without any consultation with them and undermined their tribal traditions. To the extent that their very existence, their right over their land and property were at stake.

Soon, violent protests broke out in Churachandpur and some attacked police stations and properties of local politicians. The violence had claimed nine lives.

A view from inside the deep freezer where the coffins are kept. (Photo: Tridip K Mandal/The Quint)

Since that day, these bodies have been kept at the morgue at the Churachandpur District Hospital, the relatives firm that won’t bury them until the guilty are punished and their demands are met. (Of the nine bodies, one was taken away from the morgue and buried by relatives in December last year.)

The dead have ensured that the cause remains alive – the demand for a separate administration and perhaps a separate state someday.

The bodies have been kept in the morgue for more that 550 days now. (Photo: Tridip K Mandal/The Quint)

The Joint Action Committee Against Anti-Tribal Bills have asked voters in Churachandpur to boycott the Congress and the local MLA and Manipur Health Minister Phungzathan Tonsing.

Though he’s no longer with the Congress, the people feel he didn’t speak up against the bills when they were introduced by CM Ibobi Singh. In fact, sensing the mood of the voters, the Congress has not even fielded any candidate from Churachandpur constituency.

The memorial at Churachandpur for the nine people killed during the protests of 31 August 2015. (Photo: Tridip K Mandal/The Quint)

And so, it seems the presence of the dead looms large over the elections in Manipur.

Cameraman: Tridip K Mandal
Multimedia Producer: Puneet Bhatia