Supreme Court passes directions on Manipur victims whose bodies have awaited last rites for months

Upon perusing the report of the expert committee and considering the suggestions of the petitioners, the court passed a series of directions to the state authorities, including allowing burial or cremation as per religious rites and collection of DNA samples of the victims’ bodies. 

TODAY, the Supreme Court passed directions on the burial or cremation, as appropriate, of the bodies lying in the mortuaries of Manipur.

The bodies are of victims who have been killed during the ongoing violence in the state which has been described as akin to a “civil war.

A three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice India (CJI) Dr D.Y. Chandrachud and also comprising Justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, is seized of the matter of relief and rehabilitation of violence-affected people of the state and to bring the situation back into control.

The Bench perused a report by the three-member expert committee, which was constituted by the Supreme Court on August 7, on the condition of the corpses.

The committee, headed by Gita Mittal, former Chief Justice of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, has been given a broad-based mandate to oversee government actions— including relief, rehabilitation and compensation— for those impacted by the violence.

According to the report of the expert committee, of the 175 bodies of victims, 169 have been identified, 88 of which have been claimed by the next of kin.

The CJI read a portion of the report which asserts that civil society organisations are preventing relatives of the identified bodies from claiming and burying them.

The report states that the state government has identified nine sites for burial and cremation of victims of violence and the relatives can choose a burial and cremation site for their dead family member.

The court noted that the Manipur Municipalities Act, 1994, makes provision for the disposal of bodies, particularly unclaimed ones.

Section 160 of the Act mandates the municipality to facilitate the burial or cremation of unclaimed bodies free of charge, the Bench highlighted.

Suggestions of petitioners

Senior advocate Vrinda Grover, appearing for the organisation Women in Governance and senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, appearing for the Manipur Tribal Forum, submitted that the details of the nine burial sites are not known to the relatives of the victims.

Grover submitted that since the bodies of the victims are lying in mortuaries in Imphal and the relatives are in relief camps in other areas such as Churachandpur, the court should direct the state government to facilitate access to the bodies by their next of kin.

Senior advocate Indira Jaising, appearing on behalf of the petitioner Mahua Moitra, member of Lok Sabha from the Krishnanagar constituency in West Bengal, and assisting the court, submitted that relatives should be allowed to bury the victims as per their religious rites.

Jaising argued that the right to dignity (as guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution) includes the right to burial in accordance with certain religious rites and rituals of a community.

Secondly, Jaising submitted that in view of the ongoing criminal prosecution where first information reports have been filed related to those killed in the violence, DNA samples of the bodies should be collected before burying or cremating the bodies.

The state administrative authorities should give assurance in the form of an affidavit to this effect, Jaising added.

Gonsalves’s submission that the tribal community wanted to bury the bodies of the victims in mass graves drew a sharp opposition from the Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta, appearing on behalf of the Union and state governments.

An altercation between the two involved Gonsalves asking Mehta to “stop bullying the tribals”.

Mehta vehemently argued that police authorities should be directed to take appropriate action against groups that threaten the relatives of the victims from claiming bodies.

Directions of the court

The court observed that since the violence erupted in May this year, it was not proper for the bodies of victims killed during the tensions to continue to lie in mortuaries.

Finding the suggestions of the petitioners to be “fair”, the court passed the following directions to be complied with by the authorities.

  1. Relatives of the bodies of the victims, that are identified and claimed, are to be permitted by the authorities to carry out burial in any of the nine sites identified by the states, without any threat. 
  2. The state authorities are directed to intimate the next of kin about the nine burial sites on or before next Monday.
  3. In cases of bodies that are identified but not claimed, the state government is directed to issue further communication to the next of kin of the victims as well as a public notice, on or before next Monday. 

The court clarified that in case the bodies remain unclaimed one week after the issuance of a public notice, the state government is directed to carry out the last rites of cremation or burial. 

  1. The state is directed to carry out burial or cremation of unidentified bodies with due observance of religious rites. 
  2. The collector and the superintendent of police are directed to take steps to ensure that the burial or cremation is conducted in accordance with law and order.
  3. The state government is directed to ensure that DNA samples are drawn before the process of burial or cremation takes place. 

The court directed the chief secretary and the state government to take necessary facilitative steps so that the next of kin who are in relief camps or other places are able to access the bodies for identification or performance of last rites.

Compensation to victims

In addition to the above directions pertaining to the burial of victims, the court also briefly delved into the issue of dispensation of compensation due to the victims.

Reading excerpts from the report of the expert committee, the Bench pointed out that according to the report, certain civil society organisations are preventing victims from collecting the compensation that is ready to be lifted from the authorities.

The Bench directed the parties to suggest modalities for due dispensation of compensation on the next hearing date.

On Grover’s suggestion, the Bench directed the advocate general of the Manipur High Court, Lenin Singh Hijam, to inform the Bench of the steps taken to fill vacancies in the District Legal Services Authority in Manipur on the next date of hearing.

Besides victim compensation, the Bench is also set to hear pleas relating to the restoration of places of worship, raised by senior advocate Huzefa Ahmedi, appearing for the petitioner Meitei Christian Churches Council, Manipur.

On Jaising’s request, the Bench also noted that it will peruse the report of the special investigation team on the next date of the hearing.

On August 7, the court had appointed the director general of police, Maharashtra, Dattatray Padsalgikar, to oversee the investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation.