Two fervent late Wednesday (August 2) night appeals by the Union Home Ministry and Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga, and an early morning intervention Thursday (August 3) by the Manipur High Court has averted a fresh ethnic conflagration in trouble-torn Manipur.
The Indigenous Tribal Leaders’ Forum (ITLF), an apex body of Kukis in Manipur, had earlier announced that it would bury the bodies of 35 Kukis killed in the ethnic violence in the state at a site that Meiteis consider their own ancestral land.
The ITLF had chosen Torbung Bangla, which falls under Torbung gram panchayat located on the edge of Meitei-dominated Bishnupur district and Kuki-dominated Churachandpur district, as the site of the mass burial.
The ITLF had also declared that the site of the mass burial would be declared a martyrs’ memorial.
But Meitei groups led by the Coordinating Committee on Manipur’s Integrity (COCOMI), which is perceived to be close to chief minister N Biren Singh, had warned against any attempt to bury the 35 at Torbung Bangla.
While opposing the ITLF’s intent to play politics over dead bodies, the COCOMI said that the burials would be vehemently opposed and would trigger fresh confrontations in the state between Meiteis and Kukis.
Meitei groups said that the choice of the site of mass burial was a “grave affront” to the Meitei community. “The ITLF has deliberately chosen a place that falls at the edge of Bishnupur district. Meiteis were living in Torbung Bangla and had fled the area after attacks by Kui narco-terrorists on May 3 and 4,” said Manipur Women’s Convention leader Asem Nirmala.
The COCOMI and other Meitei organisations vowed to stop the burial while the ITLF declared its resolve to go ahead with it.
Meiteis and Kukis started gathering near Torbung Bangla in large numbers from Wednesday (August 2) and it appeared that a terrible confrontation could occur if the mass burial was attempted at 11 am Thursday (August 3) as planned by the ITLF.
The state government moved large contingents of Manipur Police, Rapid Action Force (RAF), Assam Rifles and Army to the area from Tuesday (August 1) evening.
The Manipur government appealed to the ITLF Wednesday afternoon to abandon its plans in the interests of peace in the state. But the ITLF rejected the appeal outright with its spokesperson Ginza Vualzong asserting Wednesday evening that “ass burial will go ahead as planned”.
The ITLF also warned that if any group tried to disrupt the event, they would be responsible for the consequences. Similar warnings were also issued by Meitei groups who asserted that the ITLF would be responsible for any adverse fallout of the mass burial.
Crisis-management from Wednesday evening:
With no solution in sight and apprehending fresh trouble, Union Home Minister Amit Shah asked some interlocutors who were interacting with the ITLF and Kuki groups to appeal to them to abandon the mass burial plan.
Amit Shah also got in touch with Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga Wednesday evening and requested him to intervene. Zoramthanga, it is learnt, immediately got working and contacted ITLF leaders.
The Mizoram chief minister, it is learnt, told the ITLF leaders that intransigence on the issue would harm their cause. Zoramthanga has a lot of influence over the Kuki-Zo community in Manipur which belongs to the same ethnic group as the Mizos.
The Union Home Ministry’s interlocutors also spoke to ITLF leaders and said any movement on discussing the political demands of the Kukis would not be possible if a fresh confrontation occurs over the mass burial. They advised the ITLF to step back.
Bombarded with appeals from the Mizoram chief minister and the Union Home Ministry, the ITLF leaders held a late night meeting at Churachandpur. The ITLF, after hours-long deliberations that lasted till 4 am Thursday, accepted the appeals to abandon the mass burial, but only for five days till early next week.
Acting CJ woken up at 4 am:
But not leaving anything to chance, even as the ITLF leaders were winding up their meeting, the state government asked its deputy advocate general H Debendra to wake up acting chief justice M V Muralidaran for an urgent hearing on an appeal to disallow the mass burial.
The acting Chief Justice was woken up at 4 am and told about the urgency of the matter. A petition had been filed by a Meitei organisation--International Meeteis Forum--earlier this week before the Manipur High Court to stop the mass burials.
A special bench of the Court comprising Justice A Bimol Singh and Justice Guneshwar Sharma was scheduled to hear the petition Wednesday. But Justice Singh was unable to hear the matter due to a personal inconvenience.
On learning about the gravity of the situation, acting Chief Justice Muralidaran agreed to hear the appeal at a special sitting at his residence at 5 am. He reconstituted the bench by replacing Justice Singh with himself and included Justice Sharma, who rushed to Acting CJ Muralidaran’s residence at 5 am.
Additional advocate general Debendra and counsel for the petitioners, M Hemchandra, told the Court that huge mobs from both the communities had gathered near the mass burial site and violence could break out any moment.
The special bench issued an order at 6 am asking for status quo to be maintained and disallowing the mass burial in view of “the potentiality of aggravating the already volatile law and order situation and the possibility of igniting a fresh wave of violence and bloodshed due to the gathering of large mobs from both the communities at the land in question”.
The Court, while allowing representatives of the Kuki-Zo community to apply to state officials for an alternative site for the burial within a week, also asked the Union and state governments to amicably resolve the matter. The matter will come up for hearing again August 9.
Though an immediate flare-up has been avoided, the crisis is not over. The ITLF has set out five conditions for agreeing to postpone the mass burial.
In a letter to Union Home Minister Amit Shah, the ITLF listed the five conditions:
Legalisation of the chosen site at Torbung Bangla (which the Kukis have renamed ‘Torbung Lourup’ and handing it over to the Kuki-Zo community for the planned mass burial.
Withdrawal of Manipur Police from the hills districts “for the safety of Kuki-Zo community”,
Transporting bodies of all ‘Kuki-Zo martyrs’ lying in hospitals in Imphal to Churachandpur for burial.
Fast-track discussions on the Kuki-Zo community’s political demand for “total separation from Manipur”, and
Shift all tribal jail inmates in prisons in Imphal Valley to prisons in the hills districts for their safety.
While two of the demands--shifting bodies of Kukis killed in the clashes from Imphal to Churachandpur and shifting tribal prisoners from Imphal--can easily be met, the other three demands will be impossible to concede.
Also, Meitei groups have said that the Meitei families who had fled Torbung Bangla will start returning to their lands from Friday (August 4). Meitei groups have urged the state government to push back ‘Kuki narco-terrorists’ who had attacked them and driven them away from Torbung Bangla on May 3 and 4.
The Kukis are hell-bent on preventing such a return and claim that Torbung Bangla is now ‘Kuki territory’ and falls within the proposed ‘Kukiland’ (a separate Kuki state).
Thus, while a major conflagration has been avoided, the situation remains volatile and a fresh violence can erupt any day in that area.
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