Nearly three months into the ethnic violence in Manipur, at least 53 dead bodies – mostly all belonging to the Kuki community – lie unclaimed at two district hospitals in Imphal East and West, sources at the state health department and district administrations told Newslaundry. Officials said three or four bodies of persons belonging to the Meitei community also remain unclaimed at a Churachandpur facility.
Most of the bodies, which are in a state of decay, are yet to be identified by the police. At JNIMS, seven bodies have been officially identified by the police. At RIMS, however, at least 26 bodies have been informally identified, through pictures and documents shared by relatives, the district administration officials said.
The responsibility to identify bodies usually lies with the police.
The raging conflict has resulted in assumptive boundaries, as the Kukis who once lived in the valley have moved to the hill districts, while the Meiteis who once lived in the hills have concentrated in the valley. Since the violence began on May 3, over 180 people have died and thousands displaced in the wake of the Kukis being targeted in the valley, Meiteis attacked in the hills.
As many as 59 and 49 bodies have been received by Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal East and Regional Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal West so far in connection with the ethnic conflict.
Officials at both hospitals and in the administration said 27 bodies remain unclaimed at JNIMS, while 26 are unclaimed at RIMS, and almost all these are of Kukis. Most were brought to the hospital in the first week of the violence. No post-mortem examination has been conducted on the bodies.
Both hospitals have written to the district administration and the police to dispose of the bodies as they pose health hazards.
A doctor at RIMS told Newslaundry, “The 26 bodies are not kept in cold storage. After being embalmed, they have been kept in body bags.” RIMS’ cold storage has space for just six bodies.
At JNIMS too, the 27 unclaimed bodies are grouped together in a room without cold storage. The hospital’s cold storage facility can accommodate up to 12.
Hospital authorities said the responsibility of disposing of the bodies lie with the police and the district administration. “We can’t perform a post-mortem because we don’t have approval from the deputy commissioner or the superintendent of police. These dead bodies have to be taken care of by the police,” said JNIMS director L Deben Singh, adding that they could lead to contamination.
An official in the district administration said the bodies can be sent to the families by two methods: either the army provides a safe passage, or both communities come together to ensure “dignity in death” and allow families to obtain the last remains of their loved ones.
“There are three-four unclaimed bodies of Meiteis in Churachandpur too. So a two-way arrangement can be made. But it requires political will and participation from civil society organisations,” he said.
Another doctor at the hospital said dead bodies have “putrefied” and pose health hazards for the surroundings. “Essentially, the bodies are kept here. But they are in the custody of the DC and the SP,” he said, adding that seven of the unclaimed 27 bodies at JNIMS have been identified.
At RIMS, all 26 bodies have been identified through informal channels, including photographs shared by relatives. “The police are yet to formally confirm the identity. But the deputy commissioner’s office has informal identification for almost all except one or two,” said an official privy to the identification process.
The 26 bodies at RIMS are kept in two rooms on the floor, slotted in iron rakes, with a few bones of children in a bag, a hospital employee told Newslaundry. The first room’s windows are blocked with tin sheets while in the other room, the bodies are stacked alongside a bed and an almirah, with a putrid stench in the air.
One of these bodies at RIMS is of Thangnoulal, the driver to BJP MLA Vungzagin Valte. Thangnoulal died on May 4, when he and the Kuki-Zomi MLA were attacked by a mob moments after the latter came out from a meeting with chief minister Biren Singh. While Thangnoulal lost his life, Valte was critically injured and admitted to AIIMS Delhi for treatment.
Thangnoulal’s wife, Chingneihmoi Zou, has been in touch with the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum, a pro-Kuki civil society organisation, to retrieve his body. She said the ethnic divide keeps her from approaching the authorities. “My husband’s body is at RIMS. I can’t talk to the hospital administration as they are Meiteis. We recently had a meeting with the ITLF. We may get the body by tomorrow with the help of the army.”
Imphal West deputy commissioner Kiran Kumar said he has had several rounds of talks with RIMS director G Sunil Kumar Sharma on the disposal of the bodies. “If it was not a conflict situation, we would have sent them to incinerators. But these are not normal times.” He added that in normal circumstances, unclaimed bodies “are disposed of in three to four days”.
The doctor quoted above said that after 74 hours, bodies start decomposing. “If we keep these bodies in cold storage, there won't be any space for the new ones.”
RIMS director G Sunil Kumar Sharma was not available for comment. RIMS medical superintendent Nepram Sanjib also could not be reached.