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Manipur crisis: Supreme Court expresses disappointment with HC, directs authorities to exercise “responsibility and restraint”

A three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court, comprising the Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dr D.Y. Chandrachud and Justices P.S. Narasimha and J.B. Pardiwala, perused the status report filed by the Manipur government in view of the violence in the state. The CJI expressed disappointment over the failure of Justice M.V. Muralidaran, who had passed the Order that triggered the violence to correct himself. In the context of provocative statements by the chief minister of the state, the CJI also directed that authorities should exercise “a great sense of responsibility and restraint”.

ON Wednesday, a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court, comprising the Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dr D.Y. Chandrachud and Justices P.S. Narasimha and J.B. Pardiwala, perused the status report filed by the Manipur government in view of the violence that ensued in the Bishnupur and Churachandpur districts of the state last week. 

The violence had quickly escalated to other districts of the state over the following days, leading to the loss of lives, and the destruction of homes, churches and temples.

The Bench directed law enforcement authorities to take into consideration the grievances raised in a bunch of applications filed before the court. It also directed the state government to file a fresh status report on the violence after the vacation. 

On March 27, a single-judge Bench of the Manipur High Court, Justice M.V. Muralidaran, directed the state government to consider the inclusion of the Meitei community in the list of Scheduled Tribes, and to send a recommendation to this effect to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs expeditiously, preferably within a period of four weeks.

Reportedly, the high court order led to tensions between the Kuki tribe and the majority Meitei population. The Tribal Solidarity March, organised by the All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur (ATSUM) led to protests against the demand of the Meitei community to be included in the list of Scheduled Tribes.

The CJI-led Bench was hearing petitions that challenged the order of the Manipur High Court and prayed for the Supreme Court to direct evacuation, ensure the safety and protection of those affected by the violence, protect places of worship, and set up a special investigation team, amongst other things.

Status report

The Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Union and Manipur governments, filed a status report and apprised the Bench that the current situation on the ground in Manipur is “substantially” under control. 

On the CJI’s enquiry on the measures taken by the government on rehabilitation, Mehta referred to the status report and highlighted the steps taken by the state to bring law and order back to normal again in the state. 

Steps mentioned in the status report include the opening of 318 relief camps and providing relief to 4,791 persons, sanctioning of ₹3 crore by the state government to meet exigencies in providing relief measures, and compensation packages of around ₹5 lakh for the next kin of persons who died due to the violence. 

Further, referring to the status report, Mehta said that the government has enhanced security measures at religious places such as shrines, temples and churches. Apart from adopting security measures in every district, Manipur rifles and Assam rifles have been deployed in critical areas. Stranded people and people in distress are being evacuated to safe shelters and to their hometowns— 46, 298 persons have been provided help, the report claims. 

Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, appearing for the petitioners, strongly opposed the credibility of the status report of the state government. Gonsalves claimed that 80 people have been killed and multiple villages have been destroyed since the last date of hearing. No mention of such ongoing violence is found in the state government’s current status report, he emphasised. 

Gonsalves, in his application, identified specific villages that fear imminent attacks. He prayed for the protection of the army in such areas. He claimed that although the army was present from the beginning, the Chief Minister of Manipur N. Biren Singh did not allow it to act when violence first erupted. 

The Bench, thereby, directed the authorities entrusted with monitoring law and order in the state, particularly the chief secretary and security advisor, to take into account the apprehensions raised by the petitioners and to take appropriate measures to foster confidence and ensure peace. 

In order to be apprised periodically of the steps taken, the Bench directed the state government to submit a fresh status report on the situation in Manipur immediately after the reopening of the court after the vacation. 

Developments in Manipur High Court

Mehta apprised the Bench that in view of the sensitivity of the situation, an application was filed by the state government before Justice Muralidaran for an extension of time to comply with his directions in the Order passed on March 27. Consequently, an extension of a period of one year was granted to the state government. 

To this, Gonsalves submitted that in view of the repercussions of the Order, it should be stayed. He also submitted that the directions issued in the Order on March 27 are contrary to the settled position of law provided by the Constitution Bench in State of Maharashtra versus Milind & Ors (2001). In this case, the court had observed that it cannot expand jurisdiction to deal with the question as to whether a caste, sub-caste, group or part of a tribe or sub-tribe is included in the Entries in the Presidential Orders issued under Articles 341 (Scheduled Castes) and 342 (Scheduled Tribes) of the Constitution. It had further clarified that the power to include or exclude, amend or alter the Presidential Order is expressly and exclusively conferred on and vested with the Parliament. 

The CJI noted that Justice Muralidaran has referred to his Order as “innocuous” and remarked that despite being allowed the time, Justice Muralidaran has failed to correct himself. The CJI also expressed his disappointment over the failure of the high court to follow the rulings of the Constitution Bench. 

Advocates appearing for the respondents apprised the court that an appeal against the Order of Justice Muralidaran has been filed by the All Manipur Tribal Union. The appeal was entertained by a division Bench of the high court on May 15 and is listed for further hearing on June 6. On the CJI asking Gonsalves to join the said appeal in the high court, Gonsalves contended that it is not possible for any lawyer belonging to the Kuki tribe to appear in the high court since villages surrounding the court have been burned down. 

The Bench directed the parties aggrieved by the Order of the Manipur High Court to make submissions before its division Bench. The parties were granted liberty to approach the Supreme Court in case of grievances against the order of the division Bench. 

Other contentions of politics and policies

An advocate appearing for the High Court Bar Association of Manipur referred to his petition and submitted that the violence in the state has been caused by the militant camps of immigrants from Myanmar who seek to engage in “illegal” poppy cultivation and drug trade. 

In respect of another application filed before the court, it was contended that the militants are disturbing the peace in the state on account of the Manipur government’s recent withdrawal from the Suspension of Operations (SoO) arrangement with the Kuki National Army, an insurgent group. 

The SoO arrangement, or political negotiation, is a tripartite agreement among the Union government, the state government and the groups over establishing a ceasefire and availing of political dialogue to address the groups’ demands. 

The Bench directed law enforcement authorities to consider the apprehensions in the petitions and applications filed before it. The Bench remarked that in cases of such apprehensions where allegations are levelled by parties on both sides, an intervention has to be made by the state and the political arm of the executive. 

The CJI clarified that the court is not delving into who is primarily responsible for the violence. “Law and order is a state subject, and the court can only ensure that the powers entrusted to the authorities are exercised and they don’t turn a blind eye to it,” he added. 

In respect of his application filed before the court, advocate Nizam Pasha pointed out the alleged open communal remarks made by the chief minister that the violence has been caused by “Kuki foreigners” who have migrated to the state and have “destroyed Manipur in the name of Christianity, drugs, poppy, guns and looting”.  

To this apprehension by Pasha, the CJI addressed Mehta and directed him to advise the authorities that statements should be made with “a great sense of responsibility and restraint”. 

Thereafter, the court refused to go deeper into any further matters of “politics and policies” concerning the instant matter.