The Supreme Court on Tuesday issued directions for ensuring dignified burial or cremation of those killed during the Manipur ethnic violence after it was informed about 94 unclaimed bodies kept in mortuaries and said it does not want to "keep the pot boiling" on the issue.
A bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud perused a report filed by the apex court-appointed all-woman committee of former high court judges, headed by Justice (retd) Gita Mittal, regarding the position on dead bodies.
The report said 94 unclaimed bodies were being preserved in mortuaries maintained by the state authorities.
The top court said it would not be either appropriate or proper to keep the bodies, which have not been identified or claimed, indefinitely in the mortuaries.
According to the report, 175 deaths were reported out of which 169 bodies have been identified. The top court noted that of the 169 identified bodies, only 81 have been claimed by the next of kin.
The apex court is seized of a batch of pleas, including those seeking a court-monitored probe into cases of violence, besides measures for relief and rehabilitation.
The bench, also comprising justices J B Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, noted the state government has identified nine burial sites where the burial can take place.
"The next of kin of bodies, which have been identified and claimed, may carry out the performance of the last rites of the bodies at any of the identified nine burial sites without any .. hindrance by any party whatsoever," the bench said.
It said the state authorities shall intimate the next of kin of the identified bodies, which have already been claimed, with regard to the nine burial sites which have been made available and this exercise shall be carried out on or before December 4.
"As regard the bodies which have been identified but which have not been claimed, the state administration shall issue a communication to the next of kin on or before Monday, intimating the next of kin that they are permitted to carry out the last rites together with requisite religious observances within a period of one week thereafter at any of the identified nine burial/cremation sites," the bench said.
It also permitted the state to carry out burial/cremation of unidentified bodies with due observance of religious rites.
The bench said the collector and the superintendent of police would be at liberty to take all appropriate steps for the maintenance of law and order to ensure that the burials/cremation takes place in an orderly fashion.
"In the event that DNA samples have not been drawn at the stage when the autopsies were conducted, the state shall ensure the drawing of such samples before the process of burial/cremation takes place," it said.
"The state is permitted to issue a public notice indicating that if bodies which are identified are not claimed within a period of one week from the date of the issuance of the notice, the state shall carry out the last rites after the expiry of the period of one week by complying with the directions which have been issued above," the bench said.
It noted an apprehension was expressed that several bodies were lying in mortuaries in Imphal and administration may take necessary facilitative steps so that next of kin were able to access the bodies for identification or performance of last rites.
"We direct that the chief secretary together with the state administration shall take appropriate decision in this regard so that the above grievance is addressed," the bench said.
During the hearing, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre and the state, said if the next of kin are agreeable to burying a body in one of the nine sites, no one else can have any objection to that.
The counsel appearing for some of the petitioners said they don't know where the nine burial sites were.
When the bench asked Mehta about it, he said, "Next of the kin are intimated in writing that these are the nine sites".
During the hearing, the bench observed, "We don't want to keep the pot boiling on dead bodies".
The hearing also witnessed some heated exchange of words between Mehta and senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, who was representing one of the petitioners.
When the bench said it would pass an order to close the issue concerning the burial or cremation of the dead, Gonsalves said, "Please don't do this without us seeing the report (of the committee). That will not be fair to us".
"Frankly, it appears, the idea is only to keep the pot boiling," the bench observed.
The court said it would hear on December 4 the issues raised in the committee's report about acceptance of ex-gratia to kin of the victims.
The committee headed by Gita Mittal also includes justices (retd) Shalini P Joshi and Asha Menon.
Manipur descended into chaos and violence in May after a high court order directing the state government to consider including the non-tribal Meitei community in the list of Scheduled Tribes.
More than 170 people have been killed and several hundred others injured since ethnic violence first broke out in the state on May 3 when a 'Tribal Solidarity March' was organised in hill districts to protest against the majority Meitei community's demand for ST status.