Supreme Court grants interim protection against arrest to two petitioners for FIRs filed in Manipur

The two petitioners, a retired army colonel and an HIV/AIDS activist, have been accused under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code for promoting enmity between groups and disturbing peace in Manipur, for writing a book and giving a speech respectively.

TODAY, two petitioners were granted interim protection from arrest by the Manipur police by the Supreme Court.

A three-judge Bench led by the Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dr D.Y. Chandrachud and also comprising Justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra was hearing writ petitions seeking quashing of first information reports (FIRs) filed against petitioners in Manipur.

The first petition concerns an FIR filed against Dr Vijaykant Chenji, a retired colonel of the Indian army, for authoring a book, The Anglo-Kuki War 1917–19: Victory in Defeat, which was published in January 2022.

The petition states that the book authored by Dr Chenji documents the military campaign undertaken by the British rulers to subjugate the Kuki community, and does not promote enmity between groups and disturb peace and tranquillity in the state, as alleged.

Noting that the petitioner is a retired colonel who had published the book back in 2022, the Bench granted him interim protection till the next hearing date.

In respect of the second petition, a first information report (FIR) has been filed against Henminlun, alias Loon Gangte, the founder and President of the Delhi Network of Positive People, a network of people living with HIV/AIDS, for giving a speech that ‘disturbed public order and promoted enmity between groups’.

Senior advocate Anand Grover, appearing on behalf of both the petitioners, apprised the court that Gangte is yet to receive a copy of the FIR despite requests to the authorities.

To this, the Bench directed the authorities to serve Gangte with a copy of the FIR within one week.

Granting interim protection to Gangte, the Bench directed that no coercive steps should be taken against him in connection with the FIR till September 22.

Threat to lawyers

Grover submitted the difficulty of the petitioners in approaching the Manipur High Court to seek relief. He averred that it would be particularly difficult to engage a lawyer to represent Gangte since he belongs to the minority community.

Grover reminded the court of the threats to the lawyers representing Dr Kham Khan Suan Hausing, a professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad, in Manipur High Court.

On August 14, the Supreme Court had granted Dr Hausing a two-week interim protection from arrest by the Manipur police.

An FIR has been lodged against Dr Hausing under Sections  120B, 153A, 200, 295A, 298 and 505(i) of the IPC for giving an interview on violence-hit Manipur to The Wire.

A second FIR was filed against Dr Hausing on the ground that his name had been added to the electoral roll of the Churachandpur assembly constituency in 2005 allegedly using fraudulent means.

The three advocates, engaged by Grover to represent Dr Hausing in the Manipur High Court, have withdrawn from the case due to alleged threats.

Grover apprised the court that the house of one of the lawyers was vandalised by a mob and that two lawyers had to flee Manipur and take relief in CRPF camps.

To this concern raised by Grover, the Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta submitted that the Manipur High Court is functioning and lawyers are appearing physically as well as virtually.

Referring to the series of petitions praying for interim protection, Mehta sought to direct the court’s attention to a “pattern” that is initiated “from a particular section”.

Replying to Mehta’s claim, Grover stated that the pattern is seen only from one “side’ and not the other.

The Bench directed Grover to file an affidavit on the difficulty in engaging a lawyer who could appear on Grover’s behalf in the Manipur High Court.

It is a serious matter that lawyers are not appearing [in Manipur High Court],” the CJI remarked.

Dr Chenji’s petition

Dr Chenji is a 76-year-old retired colonel of the Indian army, who participated in the war of Bangladesh’s independence in 1971 and has also served in counter-insurgency operations in the Northeast.

Dr Chenji has filed the present petition in the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution, challenging an FIR lodged against him at District Imphal West police station.

The petition states that an FIR, dated August 9, was filed by an organisation Federation of Haomee, against him for authoring the book The Anglo-Kuki War 1917–19: Victory in Defeat.

Dr Chenji is charged with offences under Sections 120, 121, 123, 153-A and 200 of the Indian Penal Code for “distorting history for personal gain and in favour of a particular community which has resulted in grave offences against India and the United Kingdom.”

The petition explains that the book, published in January last year, is a scholarly piece of writing that gives a military perspective of the campaign undertaken by the British colonial rule to subjugate the Kuki community.

According to the petition, the book does not mention Meiteis or any other tribe in a degrading manner or show them in a bad light.

The said book focuses solely on that historical period and highlights that there wasn’t any cause for bitterness between the two communities,” the petition adds.

The petition relies on a catena of judgments such as State (NCT of Delhi) versus Navjot Sandhu (2005), Shaukat Hussain Guru versus State (2008), Amish Devgan versus Union of India (2021) and Mohd. Zubair versus State (NCT of Delhi) (2022) to prove that academic writing cannot be a cause of the above-mentioned charges under the IPC.

Given the ongoing sectarian violence in Manipur, the petition raised suspicion on the timing of the FIR. The book was available for over a year and no grievance was sought when it was published in 2022, the petition says.

The petition avers that since Dr Chenji belongs to neither the Kuki nor the Meitei community, he has no apparent motive to create any rift between the two communities.

The petition claims that such a criminal action put Dr Chenji’s liberty in peril and has a “chilling effect on the artistic and academic freedom” guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

Gangte’s petition

Gangte has filed the present petition in the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution to challenge the FIR lodged against him at District Imphal West police station.

The petition states that an FIR, dated August 8, was filed against him for giving a speech on the topic of Separate Administration: The Only Solution, at an event organised by the Kuki-Zo Women’s Forum on July 28.

As per the petition, Gangte is charged with offences under Sections 153-A, 505(1)(b), 505(2), and 34 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

The petition relies on a catena of judgments such as Amish Devgan versus Union of India (2021), Manzar Sayeed Khan versus State of Maharashtra (2007) and Bilal Ahmed Kaloo versus State of Andhra Pradesh (1997) to prove that the petitioner cannot be held liable under the above-mentioned provisions of the IPC for giving the speech.

Claiming that Gangte’s speech is protected under Articles 14, 15 and 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, the petition says, “The filing of FIR against speeches in a public forum also results in causing a ‘chilling effect’ on speech, and a general shrinking of space for dissent, critique and democratic dissent.”

The petition relies on the judgment in the case of Justice (retd.) Markandey Katju versus Lok Sabha & Another (2017), in which it was held that “Article 19(1)(a) guarantees free speech and expression and makes no distinction and imposes no caveats, whether such speech is popular or dissenting in nature.”