‘Trial by Water’ Leaves Two Village Chief Hopefuls Dead

Published: 18th December 2014 05:58 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th December 2014 05:58 AM   |  A+A-

GUWAHATI: In tribal areas of the North East, traditions help settle disputes, but take lives too.

Two brothers, both septuagenarians, died while holding their breath underwater, as part of their traditions to become the village chief.

The tragic incident was reported from the Gatao village, also known as Satu, in Manipur’s Tamenglong district. The deceased -- Singlampao Khao, 75, and Gadai Khao, 74 -- were embroiled in a bitter dispute to be the village chief.

The duo had purportedly written to district authorities and also the state’s Deputy Chief Minister to settle the dispute, but did not receive any response.

“It was a stray incident. I was told they died of exhaustion, but I don’t know the exact cause of their deaths though. They died at home,” Tamenglong Superintendent of Police Themsing Ngashangva told Express. “It’s a very remote area. So I don’t have the exact details. But apparently, the duo had been on litigation for long (to be the village chief). We heard such practices are followed Ukhrul and Chandel districts of Manipur, as well, to settle rows. But they are not so common and we prohibit them,” he added.

The incident has ruffled the feathers of the locals who held the state government responsible. They said the duo would not have lost their lives if the government had responded to their pleas.  They demanded ex-gratia payment for the families of the deceased and also threatened to move the human rights commission.

The tribals in Manipur are governed by customary laws and practices. In some villages, they settle disputes of all kinds through the traditional way of “water emersion”, in which the warring parties are made to hold their breath underwater. The one who manages to stay under water for longer is declared the winner.

“It is also called the ‘trial by water’. People believe that truth prevails in the trial by water,” Pamreiso Shimray, a local in Ukhrul district, said. “This year, a couple of disputes were settled through this,” he said. 

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