Sunday, June 23, 2024

Since the start of the ethnic conflict that turned a state in India’s northeast into a war zone, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has attempted to divert attention from the calamity.

His allies touted a peace deal with insurgents, despite its unrelated nature to the ethnic violence. The government also resumed development projects as a signal of returning to “normalcy.” Meanwhile, a sympathetic news media shifted its focus elsewhere.

Yet, in hospital morgues across Manipur, there is undeniable evidence that the conflict remains unresolved. Dozens of bodies remain unclaimed six months after the fighting began, not because they are unrecognizable, but partly because the region’s security situation is still too volatile.

“They may kill us,” said Kimi, a mother of three whose husband, she said, was killed by a mob from a different ethnic group on May 4 in Imphal, the state’s capital. Like many Indians, she uses one name.

This week, India’s top court intervened and ordered officials to ensure a dignified burial of the dead, stating that doing so could reduce tensions. One ethnic group has accused another of leaving bodies unclaimed for political reasons. The country’s chief justice, Dhananjaya Yeshwant Chandrachud, said the court would not allow the remains to stay indefinitely in morgues and “keep the pot boiling over the dead bodies.”

When open warfare broke out in Manipur in May, it was an uncomfortable development for a government that has cultivated an image of India as a rising global power. About 200 people have been killed in a state of fewer than three million people, and more than 60,000 are now in squalid refugee camps.

The bloodshed has mostly abated, but sporadic incidents of violence continue, essentially leaving the state partitioned between two ethnic groups: the mostly Hindu Meiteis, who form a narrow majority, and members of Christian hill tribes known as Kukis. Last week, two Kukis were killed by Meitei insurgents, according to Indian media reports.

The unprecedented violence, including widespread allegations of sexual assault, began after a dispute over who should have the right to claim a special tribal status from the government that grants privileges like land ownership. Since then, it has morphed into an intensifying demand for a separate state by Kuki leaders.

A majority of those who have been killed were Kukis, though large numbers of Meiteis have also died. Health officials said the unclaimed bodies were mostly those of Kukis.

Since the beginning, Mr. Modi has been nearly silent about the conflict, following a familiar playbook of staying above it all when news turns unfavorable.

For centuries, tribal leaders in India’s northeastern region, with its patchwork of different ethnic groups, have kept invaders, kings and colonizers at bay. But they have also fought among themselves for control of land and its natural resources.

Since India’s independence from Britain, federal governments have tried to integrate the region’s populations into the mainstream. The result has been conflict over scarce resources and economic opportunity. Amid the decades of strife, the Indian armed forces have amassed extraordinary powers to quash ethnic insurgencies there.

In recent years, the Indian government has accelerated the pace of development, building large-scale infrastructure projects, including a sprawling network of roads.

Leaders from Kuki tribes are demanding a mass burial at a site bordering a Meitei village, and the creation of a monument to honor the dead. That demand was rejected by officials of both the state and federal governments, according to Kuki leaders. Both governments are run by Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Khuraijam Athouba, a spokesman for a Meitei group, accused Kukis of playing politics over the corpses.

“They want to use dead bodies as a symbol of enmity between the Kukis and Meiteis for generations,” he said in a phone interview from Imphal.

Last week, a committee of former judges constituted by the top court advised the regional government to publish a list of the dead. If no one comes forward to claim them, the panel said, the authorities should dispose of the bodies. The state government has identified nine burial sites.

The committee reported that 88 corpses remain unclaimed, according to Live Law, an Indian news website that reports on court proceedings.

To transport the bodies from Meitei-majority areas, Kukis say they want their security ensured as they travel from their homes to hospitals.

Jamngaihkim Gangte, 20, said she had not been able to get back the bodies of her mother, who was a high-ranking official in the Manipur government, and her brother, both of whom were killed by Meitei mobs on May 4.

Ginza Vuslzong, a leader of the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum, a Kuki group, rejected assertions by Meiteis that Kukis were being pressured to leave bodies unclaimed for political reasons.

“Who doesn’t want the dead bodies to be given a decent burial?” he said. “But you can’t just snatch my right to choose the place of the burial.”

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