19, Jan 2024 | CJP Team
It took for the Supreme Court to issue warnings and guidelines to the Union and State government and forming Special Investigation Teams (SIT) and a retired three women judge-led committee to instil some confidence in the people of Manipur. Approached during the summer vacation (May 2023), the court finally intervened decisively two months later. When the Union Government had recorded a statement before the Supreme Court, on May 8, stating that no violence has taken place in the State of Manipur during the last two days and that normalcy is returning to the State, the Court had chosen to ignore the arguments made by senior advocate Colin Gonsalves and advocate Nizam Pasha regarding the need for evacuation of people from certain areas due to violence.
CJI Chandrachud had initially remarked that the proceedings before the Supreme Court should not become an opportunity to “destabilise” the situation further, advising him not to read out aloud the statements and only flag the pages in his petition where crucial issues were highlighted (reports in LiveLaw). Notably, the only directions that has been issued by the Supreme Court during the said hearing was that the “Union Government has to ensure that steps are taken to rehabilitate displaced persons and to protect places of worship.” Towards, the end, the CJI had stated “We have expressed our concerns to the Government and have to leave it to the Government to take action“, states the LiveLaw report. At the time, on July 9, 2023, the Supreme Court had declined the urgent listing of a plea challenging the internet shutdown in the State of Manipur, which had been imposed since May 3. The said plea had been mentioned by Advocate Shadan Farasat before a vacation bench comprising Justice Aniruddha Bose and Justice Rajesh Bindal. However, noting that the matter was already ongoing before the High Court of Manipur, the matter was not listed urgently.
Even as the regular hearings had commenced in the Manipur violence case thereafter in the month of July, the Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta, appearing for the State had, however, told the Supreme Court that the “situation is improving, though slowly in view of the deployment of sufficient numbers of armed forces and setting up of relief camps.”
It was later, in the month of July, that through judicial interventions, the Supreme Court dealt with issues such as internet ban, cremation of bodies, recording of statements of victims and survivors, displacement, loss of property, colleges for students, in order to bring a sense of normalcy in the violence hit state and unravel the details of the humanitarian crisis. The SC also appointed a team of retired women High Court judges – former Justices Geeta Mittal, Shalini P Joshi and Asha Menon – who have, since, been dealing with diverse matters, including measures for relief, rehabilitation, rebuilding homes and places of worship in the state.
Women and gender based sexual violence:
On July 20, the Supreme Court had finally taken suo-moto cognizance after a video of two Kuki women being paraded naked by a mob of men, allegedly from the Meitei community, in the state of Manipur had surfaced on social media. The incident, which took place on May 4, shockingly made its full blown way to social media 76 days after it happened. The Print had in May 2023 carried a report on the FIR being filed on the incident of gendered violence. During the July 20 hearing, the Supreme Court stated that it is “deeply disturbed” by the video. Terming it “simply unacceptable”, a bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud and comprising of Justices P S Narasimha and Manoj Misra had directed the Centre and the state government to take immediate steps and apprise the apex court on what action has been taken.
This was just one instance of sexual violence against women. As per the government status report filed in court after the aforementioned viral video, several cases were disclosed where women had been at the receiving end of sexual violence. The Wire reported a case of gang-rape and murder of two women in Imphal East on May 4 as well as another case of gang-rape where an 18-year-old woman came forward to narrate the ordeal herself.
In view of the same, on July 24, a public interest litigation (PIL) petition was filed before the Supreme Court to seek an independent expert committee under the leadership of a former judge of the top court to inquire into ‘incidents of sexual assault and ongoing violence’ in the state of Manipur. Several such petitions were then filed in the Court and all these petitions were tagged with the same matter and heard by the Supreme Court bench together. At the start of August 2023, women’s groups filed intervention applications in the said case, seeking for the formation of independent Special Investigation Team (SIT) to investigate the violence under the supervision of the Supreme Court. Through the said application, more incidents of sexual violence against women, especially Kuki-Zo women, were highlighted. The application had also highlighted that there was a deliberate omission by the police to invoke Section 376(2)(g) of the Indian Penal Code, which specifically defines the offence of rape during sectarian violence and the relevant sections of the SC/ST (POA) Act.
The intervenors as well as the petitioners were heard by the Supreme Court and their suggestions were sought. A total of 11 cases of sexual violence were identified by the petitioners that were demanded to be transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
On August 7, a slew of directions was issued by the Supreme Court (which will be referred to in the later part of the piece). In addition to this, As regards investigation, the Court noted that the Centre has decided to entrust 11 FIRs relating to sexual violence to the Central Bureau of Investigation. The Court said that it will allow the transfer of these cases to the CBI. Furthermore, the court specified that it will also include 5 officers from the rank of at least DySP if not SP drawn from other States “to ensure that there is a sense of faith and an overall feeling of objectivity”. The Court clarified that these officers will be functioning within the administrative set up of the CBI and at least one of these five officers have to be a woman. In addition to this, the Court added “one more layer of security” by appointing one officer to oversee the CBI investigation, who would be reporting back to the Court.
Throughout the multiple hearings that took place in the Supreme Court, several counsel including advocates Nizam Pasha and Dr. Colin Gonsalves, both had consistently emphasised upon the worsening condition and the multiple human rights violations taking place in Manipur. The emphasis by Gonsalves of the selective targeting of the Kuki-Zo community brought about the predictable diatribe from Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta, who accused Gonsalves of giving the violence of making out a “communal angle”. In one of the early hearings, SG had attacked Advocate Gonsalves by stating in the court that “My learned friend may not give this a communal angle- like Christians or something. Real human beings are being dealt with”.
Advocate Gonsalves, appearing for the Manipur Tribal Forum, in the July 3 hearing, the situation in Manipur had “escalated” even after the guarantees and assurances given by the State government. He had also contended that numerous terrorist group leaders were publicly urging the eradication of the Kuki community, and that no police action has been taken against them despite the fact that there were open calls for violence. Advocate Gonsalves had also urged the bench to pass directions against hate speeches allegedly uttered by persons in power.
In August 7, the Supreme Court had also passed directions related to the investigation to be held by the State police. As per these directions, 42 SITs were to be formed which would look after cases which are not transferred to the CBI. For these SITs, the Court ordered for the inclusion of at least one inspector from other State Police forces. Furthermore, it was provided that the State SITs will be supervised by 6 DIG rank officers who are from outside State of Manipur.
Effectively transferring the adjudication of sensitive cases to neighbouring Assam: On September 15, the Supreme Court also issued clarifications to the Manipur High Court for the means through which the statements of the victims and the witnesses were to be taken in cases that were being handled by the SITs in Manipur. The following was provided by the Supreme Court:
- The statements under Section 164 CrPC shall be recorded by the local magistrate designated by the Chief Justice of Manipur High Court.
- If the victim/witness is situated outside Manipur, the statement shall be recorded by magistrate having jurisdiction in the area the victim/witness is located.
- After the statement is recorded, it shall be remitted to the additional magistrate in the State of Assam.
- The Test Identification Parade shall be conducted by local magistrate in State of Manipur.
Compliance by state and police with perpetrators, breakdown of machinery:
“What stood in the way of police registering the FIR immediately on May 4?” was the question posed by the Supreme Court of the State, three months after taking suo-moto cognizance of the video of naked Kuki women being paraded. In the hearings that ensued, many essential questions were raised regarding the inaction and compliance of the police with the perpetrators. In the hearing that took place on July 31, the Supreme Court had also expressed surprise that the State does not have the facts in its possession when demands regarding the details of the FIRs being filed in the State were made.
During multiple hearings thereafter, the Supreme Court bench had pointedly asked SG Mehta regarding the inaction of the police in the incident of Kuki women being paraded naked. On August 1, the bench had slammed the investigation carried out by the Manipur police in relation to the ethnic violence as “lethargic” and went to the extent of saying that there is “absolute breakdown of law and order and machinery of the State”. The Court was further aghast to note that FIRs were not registered for nearly three months after the occurrences and only few arrests have been made so far in the 6000 FIRs registered over the violence. With this, the bench had directed the Manipur Director General of Police to be personally present before the Court on August 7.
In its order dated August 7, the Supreme Court bench expressing its dissatisfaction with the delay in filing FIRs, the tardy pace of investigation as well as the lapses in the investigation process by the Manipur police in the cases related to ethnic clashes, the bench ordered the former Director General of Police, Maharashtra, appointed by court to supervise the investigation to be undertaken by CBI as well as SITs, to investigate the allegations that certain police officers colluded with perpetrators of violence (including sexual violence) during the conflict in Manipur.
A commission of retired women judges:
In view of the demands raised by the petitioners as well as the intervenors in the case, on August 7, the Supreme Court had formed a committee of three former female High Court judges to “look at diverse aspects on humanitarian nature”. The said commission is headed by Justice Gita Mittal (former Chief Justice of Jammu and Kashmir High Court), and consist of Justice Shalini Phansalkar Joshi (former Bombay High Court judge) and Justice Asha Menon (former Delhi High Court judge). The Supreme Court defined the same to be a “broad based committee” looking at things including relief, remedial measures, and rehabilitation measures, restoration of homes and places of worship.
On August 21, three reports were submitted by the committee to the Supreme Court, which were also circulated to the counsels. The said reports highlighted the following issues:
- Loss of documents of identification of Manipur citizens in the riots.
- Improvement of the Manipur Victim Compensation scheme bearing in mind the NALSA scheme.
- Appointment of domain experts for administrative directions.
- Bifurcation of cases reported from the state under several heads and thematic subjects such as compensation, violence against women, mental health care, medical health care, relief camps, data reporting and monitoring etc.
- Necessity of engaging with authorities and officials at all Government machinery levels located in far-flung relief camps in remote districts.
Many issues that were brought forth the Supreme Court bench, such as the issue of restoration of places of worship, interactions with victims and lack of sanitation and food at relief camps, were then referred to the committee formed.
It is essential to highlight here that the union government had been directed to bear the expenses associated with this committee’s work, including administrative costs and accommodations. Apart from the aforementioned, the Supreme Court had also asked the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) to ensure the expeditious creation of an online platform where people could submit relevant material and information for the committee’s consideration.
Refugee camps and displacement:
On September, 25, while monitoring of the issues that had arisen out of Manipur violence, the Supreme Court bench had passed additional directions related to issuance of Aadhar cards in the state to ensure the welfare of affected individuals and the restoration of stability in the region. The Bench had directed that Aadhar cards needed to be provided to all displaced persons whose records were available with the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) after thorough verification. Additionally, the Court had also directed for bank account details of such persons to be provided to them and instructed the Health Secretary of Manipur to issue duplicate disability certifications for individuals who missed out during the period of displacement.
Dead bodies and cremation:
The issue of claiming and burying the dead bodies of those who had died in the ethnic clashes that took place in Manipur also caused some heated debates in the Supreme Court hearings between Advocate Gonsalves and SG Mehta. SG Mehta had raised alleged against “certain civil society organisation” of fomenting trouble in conducting burial of dead bodies in the State though the next of the kin of the victims is ready to receive the bodies. Taking objection to the sharp remarks, Advocate Gonsalves had then stated that he was representing the next of kin, asking the SG to not “bully” the tribals. To this, SG stated that he was not bullying the tribals but was opposed to organizations with vested interests.
The bench of Supreme Court had then pointed to the report submitted by the women judges’ committee, which had provided that certain civil society organizations in Manipur were trying to escalate ethnic tensions by asking people not to claim the dead bodies. The said committee had also reported that among the 175 bodies in mortuaries, 169 had been identified, with 81 claimed and 88 unclaimed. Lastly, it was provided that the Manipur government had also designated nine sites for burial or cremation.
With this, on November 28, the Supreme Court issued detailed directives regarding the burial or cremation of bodies of tribals. Emphasising that the bodies cannot remain indefinitely in mortuaries, the following directions were issued by the bench:
- The next of kin of the bodies which have been identified and claimed may carry out the performance of last rites of bodies at any of the identified 9 sites without interference from third parties.
- The State authorities shall intimate the next of kin of the identified bodies. This exercise shall be done by next Monday.
- As regards bodies identified but not claimed, state administration shall issue communication to the next of kin by next Monday.
- The State is permitted to carry out burial/cremation of unidentified bodies with due observance of religious rites.
- The Collector and SP shall be at liberty to take appropriate steps for the maintenance of law and order so that burial/last rites happen in an orderly fashion.
- The State shall ensure drawing of DNA samples which weren’t drawn during autopsy.
- The state is at liberty to issue a public notice stating that if bodies which are identified aren’t claimed within one week, the state will be at liberty to carry out last rites.
- A grievance has been raised that several bodies are lying in Imphal. State administration shall take facilitative steps so that next of kins in relief camps or otherwise can accept bodies for last rites. We direct the chief secretary and state administration shall take appropriate steps in this regard.
Destruction of property, places of worship:
In the month of May itself, Christian bodies in Manipur had reported that as many as 120 churches had been burnt down during the ethnic violence. These churches primarily belonged to the Kuki tribes, with some belonging to the Meitei communities.
On September 1, a petition was filed by Meitei Christian Churches Council, Manipur (MCCCM) which had highlighted the destruction of churches during the ongoing ethnic clashes in the region. It had been contended by the petitioner that the State as well as the Centre did not do anything to prevent the destruction of churches belonging to the Meitei Christians in Manipur during the communal clashes. The petition had further asserted that despite several schemes for rehabilitation and compensation promised by the State authorities, the same had not been extended to the churches. Even the directions passed by the Supreme Court to provide relief and restoration for destroyed places of worship have not been complied with by the State government, the petition stated.
On December 15, directions were issued by the Supreme Court to the government of Manipur to furnish to the court appointed committee steps it had taken to restore the places of worship which had been destructed in the ethnic violence. The following directions were passed by the bench:
- The Government of Manipur, within two weeks, shall furnish to the court-appointed committee, the identification carried out of destructed places of worship. The said identification needed to be across all religious denominations and of all sorts of religious places.
- The State of Manipur shall inform the court-appointed committee of steps taken to secure the places of worship.
- Based on the exercise of identification, we permit the court appointed committee to prepare a comprehensive proposal for a way forward in regard to restoration of places of worship.
It was also noted by the Supreme Court that the state government will also make a policy for rehabilitation of the houses that were destroyed in the violence.
Students affected by violence, education and admission to college:
On November 28, the Supreme Court was hearing a plea filed by the students of Manipur University, Imphal which were affected by the bouts of violence in the state and sought for a direction from the court that directed the University Grants Commission (UGC) to relocate them to different Central Universities. The bench had then directed SG Mehta and Advocate General of Manipur to consider relocating 284 students affected by the Manipur violence to different Central Universities where they could continue their studies.
On December 4, the bench provided three options to the student in the said plea, which were; a) attend classes at Manipur University online; b) attend the Assam University, Silchar or; c) attend North East Hill University, Shillong. Furthermore, the bench also directed the committee led by Justice Gita Mittal to explore better administrative decisions to aid the situation of the students.
The matter is still before the Supreme Court.