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The Student Deaths That Have Manipur on the Boil Again

Aaisha Sabir |
Families of the two students allegedly abducted and killed in Manipur on the same day in July await justice and closure.
The Student Deaths That Have Manipur on the Boil Again

Photos by Aaisha Sabir

Return my son’s body or at least a part of it. Let me perform the last rites,” says Phijam Ibungobi, father of Hemjit, the 20-year-old youth who went missing on 6 July.

A series of photos of two lifeless bodies, believed to be of students Hemjit, 20, and Hijam Linthoingambi, 17, emerged on social media after the internet ban was briefly restored in Manipur.

The families of both victims told this reporter that they had been living in a state of utter emotional confusion since July. They had filed missing person reports with the police, Phijam at the Lamphel Police Station, and Hijam’s father, Kulajeet, at the Imphal Police Station.

But it was only when a local TV channel approached Phijam and his family and showed them a video, purportedly of the beheading of their son, that the floodgates of grief opened.

Phijam says, “I broke down. The police would not say that he [Hemjit] is dead, but I saw it in the video. I know he is no more. At least they should find his body,” he says in a trembling voice.

On Monday, 25 September, around 300 students thronged outside Chief Minister N Biren Singh’s house demanding justice and quick action against the perpetrators. Soon, the agitation spread to different parts of Imphal. On Tuesday, an already tense situation escalated into a confrontation between students and security forces.

Tear gas and pellets were used to disperse the crowds. But it only angered people more. “Seeing police firing tear gas and bullets at students hurt me. It is shocking,” says Phijam.

An angry mob targeted a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) mandal office and set it on fire. The office in the Thoubal district was seen in flames, with authorities struggling to douse the fire as mobs had blocked the road to access it.

On Thursday, around 1,000 people marched towards the Chief Minister’s house, seeking justice. Student union representatives told this journalist they would continue the agitation until justice is delivered.

And justice, if you ask people, must be swift and stern. “Justice must be given in three days—we want a speedy investigation by the CBI with the arrest of the culprits and the capital punishment,” says Bipin Chandra Ahanthem, president of the All Manipur Students’ Union (AMSU).

The disappearance of Hemjit and Hijam two months after ethnic strife erupted in Manipur, followed by a video and troubling photographs of them—captured alive, being killed, and then dead—has spotlighted the fragility of the situation in the state and the extent of the social divide in the state.

Theese photos were reportedly taken on 8 July, just two days after the two went missing. Apparently taken in a forest, they include one in which two armed men are in the background.

The parents of the deceased have one demand—justice for their lost children and punishment for the perpetrators. Even the burgeoning agitations mean nothing to them unless the culprits are caught and punished.

The law is the same for all Indians. Once I get justice, my heartache will reduce,” says Phijam. “Otherwise, everything else means nothing,” he says.

Hijam, a NEET aspirant, was a former Tamphasana Higher Secondary School student. “She had completed her board exams earlier this year and passed with 1st division,” says a teacher who taught her science at school.

On 6 July, Hijam had left her home to seek admission for pre-medical studies. “She was very sweet and hard-working. She would come to the staff room with her notebook to clarify doubts,” says Chitrangada Laishram, another teacher.

Hijam and Hemjit were on a road connecting the Churachandpur and Bishnupur districts—a volatile area which has witnessed heavy firing since May. In CCTV footage, the duo can be seen heading towards Nambol, 16 km from Imphal. But Hijam’s phone was switched off at Kwakta in the Bishnupur district, while Hemjit’s was switched off 18 km away at Lamdan, near the winter flower tourist spot in the Churachandpur district.

This case has been handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which sent a team led by Special Director Ajay Bhatnagar to Imphal on Wednesday afternoon (27 September).

The brutal murders have shocked Manipur, and a curfew has been imposed in response to the agitations. Still, agitating students marched towards the Chief Minister’s house on Wednesday as well, seeking a meeting. Biren Singh met a group of students and assured them of full cooperation.

The AMSU has given a memorandum to the government, listing four action points, including the demand for capital punishment for the culprits, making the progress of the CBI investigation public on 28 September, and the arrest of the perpetrators within 24 hours.

The students are coming out to protest independently. It is no longer organised by us,” says Bipin Chandra. The union has given a memorandum to the authorities with a list of actions it expects. “If the conditions are not met, we will appeal to all government employees to stay home and shut all government offices in every district,” he says.

The protest has garnered support from Meira Paibis and individual and local clubs across Imphal.

After the photos went viral, the state government jumped to re-impose the ban on mobile and VPN internet data services for five days. It also announced the closure of all schools until Friday.

Students feel threatened. If it can happen to the two students, it can happen to other students too,” a government school teacher told this reporter.

The protests escalated into a confrontation between students and security forces on 25 September. The security personnel reportedly used tear gas shells, rubber bullets, and smoke bombs to disperse the agitating students and mob, injuring over 150 students (since the agitation began). Six student bodies—AIMS, DESAM, KSA, MSF and SUK— have condemned the security forces’ use of force against the students agitating for justice.

But for Phijam and Kulajeet, nothing seems to help with the pain of loss.

The house feels empty. I feel lost without my son,” says Phijam, adding, “I remember him when I see his bag and I imagine he has come when I see a bike of the same model as his—but always, it turns out to be someone else.”

And, says Kulajeet, “We don’t want anything from the government, just my daughter. Even if it is a piece of her, I want it.”

For now it looks like there will be another long wait.

The author is an independent journalist who has visited Manipur to report on the ongoing violence. The views are personal.

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