Are there Mass Graves in Manipur?

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By Dr Roy Laifungbam & Deben Bachaspatimayum

The discovery of eight human skulls and other bones in the compound of a former high school in the heart of Imphal impels us to make a conscious attempt to be inquisitive and at the same time be skeptical about the objective facts and circumstances around this last Christmas surprise. This is not to challenge or debunk the views held by the victim families of recorded cases of involuntary disappearance and human rights defenders in Manipur but for the justice we are all hunger for by choosing a less travelled road `“ looking at things from adversary`™s point of view. The internationally accepted general definition of a mass grave, which says that it can also be one that is not related to any war crime or act of genocide but of burials of those who were casualties of natural calamities buried with full honour and human dignity that the dead deserve – does encourage one to think the other way round. This precisely, of late, not only seems to be the views of the Govt but also attempt to let pass the discovery as anything other than war crime related burial site. It is, therefore, necessary to press the Govt to prove their point, by a credible investigating agency following transparent and evidence-based scientific methods by taking the burden of proving as it alone has all the powers and resources, and obligations by the mandate of the people and law. While the Cabinet decision to rope in CBI is a step forward, pressures must be built on for transparent and speedy process lest this rare opportunity also should pass like another incident.

Reason for raising this unusual question and approach is also that we don`™t have another untouched grave waiting in the public domain to prove out point. The only one we have stumbled over for the first time is also one that has been badly disturbed and dislocated from its original location rendering it unfit for archaeological investigations. We have only the skulls and bones to tell the truth, not any another grave to tell us how they were buried and what type of grave it was. Alternately, one could also imagine the dangers of pushing the government on victims`™ terms to investigate the case only to finally conclude that it was not a mass grave or for that matter none of the victims`™ families are related to skulls by DNA tests! It is highly likely that this may happen especially when Manipur State does not have any extraordinary Constitutional safeguards or provision to self-determine in certain areas of critical importance. Moreover, Manipur`™s special status, of being the 90% grant-in-aid state also seems to weaken elected Govt in taking any tough social and political high ground against the central security forces for the Rights and Justice of its people! For these reasons, the case of the grave will be simply lost, forever, even before it is fought and the Government will be the winner of all such potential cases.

This makes the case all the more imperative to ensure that a thoroughly scientific investigation is swiftly conducted by proven experts in this field, and in accordance with established international guidelines and protocols. What is most important, apart from the rising clamour of human rights activists and victims, is the need to have professional associations of forensic scientists, anthropologists and archaeologists to make an informed presentation to our government to do what is necessary as responsible citizens of a democratic country. There is a reason to be hopeful if the approach to the issue is with open mind.

Govt of India has finally recognized the existence of 2700 Mass graves in Kashmir and investigations are going on by an international expert group called, International People`™s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-Administered Kashmir (IPTK). This is the first time Mass grave has been discovered and officially recognized in India, and the ensuing post-partition armed conflicts over Kashmir. The stories of unmarked mass graves were uncovered only in 2011 following decades of internal armed conflicts having taken heavy tolls of youth population in the state. Despite all efforts to withdraw the infamous AFSP Act 1958 under which the counter-insurgency operations are going on by the elected Govt of J&K the Act continues to be operative in the state. However, the State Government has prevailed over the Army in J&K to allow the international expert team at work to secure and protect all of those identified unmarked mass grave sites for proper scientific investigations. The Government of India is also allowing the investigations going on. Since expert teams are at work, all these identified sites have been secured and protected by law.

AFSPA 1958 has been enforced in the state to counter the growing insurgency and cross-border terrorism. Much earlier, the black military law was imposed in the Naga Hills and some areas of Manipur to counter growing secessionist Naga nationalism. By 1980, the entire territory of Manipur state was also declared disturbed and AFSPA extended. Over the last three decades, more than 10,000 youth have been killed in counter-insurgency operation which included more than 1500 recorded cases of alleged extrajudicial killings and 21 cases of recently recorded enforced or involuntary disappearance.

Based on these facts, it is theoretically possible to find a mass grave in Manipur. It is premised over the existence of an organization called the Families of Involuntary Disappearance Association, Manipur (FIDAM), the Extrajudicial Execution Victims Family Association, Manipur (EEVFAM), police records filed by aggrieved families and the recent Supreme Court`™s judgment which recognized extrajudicial killings in Manipur. Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights in Manipur (CSCHR) `“ a collective of human rights defenders and civil society organizations, takes the discovery of eight human skulls along with other skeletal remains and human artifacts at the compound of the former Tombisana High School on 25th Dec 2014 as a case of uncovering a mass grave in Manipur. But the Government`™s indifference towards the sentiments and views of civil society is apparent in their efforts to continue the excavation works at the site for the construction of a huge market place until AMSU, a student body intervened. Earth moving works, using heavy machinery, continued for next five days after the human skulls and other skeletal remains were scooped out by a JCB earth remover and dumped at another place in Mantripukhri area, about 3 KM from away, for filling another site. It is extremely pertinent to note that, according to reports of persons who were conducting the excavations, at least seven (7) of the skulls emerged in a single scoop of the JCB while another skull appeared in another scoop. These are grounds to suspect that the dead bodies were buried in close contact with each other.

Various definitions of mass graves have been put forward by forensic scientists and archaeologists. Each definition employs or emphasises different qualifiers such as the minimum number of individuals buried, different formation and transformation processes, the physical relationship between buried bodies and the specific micro-environment it creates, societal, political and legal aspects of the killing or the creation of the grave, and so on.

According to Dr. Mark Skinner, an archaeologist who has worked extensively on the field recovery of (semi) skeletonized human remains from crime and non-crime contexts internationally, a mass grave contains many (at least half a dozen) individuals, while another expert, A.K. Mant, is more modest regarding numbers: two or more bodies in contact with each other suffice to define a mass grave. Yet other archaeologists, like Haglund, Connor and Scott, state that `Mass, of course, means a large quantity or aggregate, usually of considerable size`. All three definitions recognise a most important characteristic of the mass grave `“ the human remains being in close contact. Contrary to the situation in multiple burials where the bodies are laid out parallel to one another reflecting a general concern for the dignity of the deceased, in mass graves they are placed indiscriminately, tightly together and with no reverence for the individual. To this definition Skinner has later added murder being the manner of death and concealment on the part of the perpetrator during times of war or civil conflict being the origin of the feature.

The final report of the United Nations Commission of Experts to the former Yugoslavia defines a mass grave as any site intended as a place of permanent interment from which the bodies are prevented from being moved by natural elements, and which contain two or more bodies.

Another definition focusing on legal aspects is that of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Bacre Waly Ndiaye `“ defining a mass grave as a location where three or more victims of extra-judicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, not having died in combat or armed confrontations are buried. This definition is used by The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Like the Experts Commission`™s definition it allows for other types of features than actual graves, like village wells and natural ravines.

However, a mass grave can also be found where dead bodies caused by natural calamities are buried together, most often in an orderly manner and with the dignity the deceased deserved. By the definition, it is important for any investigating team to establish that the bodies were found in a single small area or pit, very close to or in contact with each other. Experts who have worked in this field for long, however, distinguish between the criminal mass grave from the accident-related mass grave, and the type of mass grave that requires medico-legal investigation from the type that does not (mostly a matter of chronology setting off modern mass graves from ancient ones). The criminal mass grave is containing the remains of a group of individuals (meaning more than one) who share `some common trait that justified their assassinations in the eyes of the perpetrators`. It has been pointed out that, although mass graves originating from war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity are often designated clandestine graves implying secrecy and lack of knowledge, always somebody knows about their existence even if unable to point out their exact geographical location. He also points out that in many instances the party creating the mass grave is not the one responsible for the killing, giving as a reason that at the time of the crime perpetrators needed not fear reprisal. The need for concealment often comes only later.

For these reasons, it is extremely important to undertake an expert forensic-archaeological examination of the site itself. The in situ examination of the human remains becomes extremely crucial to establish the nature of act or acts that led to the death of the persons found in a mass grave. In the case of Manipur, there seems to be nothing left on the ground at the original site to prove existence of a mass grave, least to qualify that it may have been attributable to a war crime or genocide. Victims of involuntary or enforced disappearance must now rely majorly on a thorough and expert osteological and dental investigation along with DNA matching between any of one of more of the skulls and surviving families of the reported cases of involuntary disappearances. Examination of other artifacts and human clothing, jewellery also would play an important role.

This is easier said than done. The government has to agree to such a thorough expert and impartial investigation of international standard. The government has no official records of involuntary disappearances in the state. Some documentation done by few human rights defenders exist but this is far from being an exhaustive one. Many such cases remain hidden. Some studies on involuntary or enforced disappearance around the world found that many victims`™ families try to disassociate themselves from the disappeared person or choose to remain silent for the fear of reprisals and further persecution. Such cases never appear in any report. Not all of the 21 families documented as cases of involuntary disappearance in Manipur have been able to register a FIR at the police stations or file a habeas corpus petition in a court of law. Finally, the intention of the government will greatly influence the case. If the present government supports the victims of involuntary disappearance with a serious intent to deliver fair justice to its people it can do a lot. But if the recent extension of disturbed area declaration under section 3 of AFSPA 1958 for another year is any indication then the Govt will not / cannot do anything that could demoralize the operating troops for the security of the nation. But such a view would necessarily have to be weighed against India`™s obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law and ends of justice for its citizens.

(Dr. Roy Debabrata Laifungbam, is a Public Health Physician, and is the President of CORE and Convener of Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights in Manipur, Deben Bachaspatimayum, (PhD) in Social Anthropology and Convener of People`™s Development Initiatives (PDI), a constituent of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights in Manipur.)

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