Supreme Court’s moral failure in Manipur

The court’s failure to enforce state accountability and assess the power imbalances between communities has deepened the humanitarian crisis.

Published : Dec 19, 2023 22:02 IST - 9 MINS READ

Protesters shout slogans as they burn effigies of political leaders during a demonstration in Imphal on September 8, 2023.

Protesters shout slogans as they burn effigies of political leaders during a demonstration in Imphal on September 8, 2023. | Photo Credit: AFP

In an article titled ‘Supreme Court’s unwavering resolve to tackle Manipur’s crisis’ (Frontline, August 24), V. Venkatesan applauds the role of the Supreme Court for its judicial interventions in the prevailing ethnic violence in Manipur and suggests that the court has sent “a strong message: that it intends to get to the bottom of the ethnic violence and humanitarian crisis”. Beyond sending a “strong message” neither has the Court been able to, nor has it shown any urgency otherwise, to get to the bottom of the ethnic violence and humanitarian crisis.

Many of the critical directions issued—to prod the state’s intervention, for relief and rehabilitation, to generate trust and confidence in the rule of law, to hold the perpetrators accountable—have either not been complied with or have largely been unsuccessful in restoring constitutional order, and a sense of justice particularly among the Zo ethnic tribes (also referred to as the ‘Kuki-Zomi’).

Also Read | When will the violence in Manipur end?

Perhaps it is now obvious to even an ignorant and distant bystander that the humanitarian and security emergency in Manipur is a political problem and requires political will to carefully design and decisively deliver an enduring set of political solutions. But the political nature of the problem and the limited space for the judiciary, or the supposed “layered complexity”, which some “neutral” observers claim, are beyond the understanding of the rest of India.

None of these absolve the court of its abject failure to discharge its foremost function of being an effective counter-majoritarian institution to protect the politically weak and socially powerless Zo ethnic tribes, especially in a situation of evident and open fusion of ethnic majoritarian society-state.

In that sense, the biggest moral failure of the Supreme Court, which prides itself for being a sentinel qui vive or watchful guardian against the violation of rights, has been its unwillingness to interrogate and evaluate the high degree of structural asymmetricity in the distribution of political and social power between the two communities and to assess the role of the imbalance of power in the perpetuation of structural violence.

This is evidenced from first, the refusal of the Supreme Court to enforce state accountability for its complicity (through commission or omission) in the heinous crimes against Zo ethnic tribals; second, its inability to grasp the magnitude of the humanitarian catastrophe that has arisen; and third, the failure to acknowledge that the state machinery is acting with prejudice and bias against different sections of the Zo ethnic tribes. Thus, the responses formulated by the Court have largely proven ineffective and inadequate.

These aspects can be appreciated by looking at the trajectory of the hearings, applications, and status reports filed, and the orders issued by the Supreme Court. The Court has not displayed any serious disposition to follow up on or enforce compliance of its directions; or apply a judicial mind to scrutinise the affidavits and status reports placed on record and ask tough questions to the State based on the petitioners’ submissions.

False claims of normalcy

A case in point is the hollow assurance given by the State government that the ‘situation was gradually returning to normalcy’, which was in complete contradiction to the prevailing on-ground situation. For example, on May 8, the State government in a statement before the Court submitted that there had been ‘no violence reported during the previous two days’.

This was particularly surprising given that at least seven Kuki-Zomi tribals were reportedly killed between May 6 and May 7 alone. Moreover, some 4,000 weapons were looted in the first week itself from armouries located in the Valley. This being the case, the Court should have probed the State on its tall claims of normalcy, which even if true, would at best be temporary and short-lived, and demanded that it be informed on the steps taken to fix accountability. Unfortunately, it did not.

Further, in the initial two weeks of the violence—On May 8 and 17—the Court issued directions for facilitating access to medical care, ensuring the well-being of displaced persons, and securing vulnerable areas, etc. Indeed, the directions for relief, rehabilitation, and security were welcome. But by this time, the bloodiest wave of the targeted killings had already been executed.

The fact is that in the first week itself, 77 Zo tribals had been killed (according to a report by Reuters), and every section of the State machinery, which could respond promptly to the distressed Zo tribals had been deliberately disabled. Almost all the Kuki-Zomi legislators had their homes attacked and were forced to flee Imphal, with one of their colleagues almost bludgeoned to death. The Director General of Police, a Kuki-Zomi officer, was replaced as the operational commander of the police force. Moreover, officials deputed for a helpline centre notified for responding to distress calls, were almost entirely of Meitei ethnicity.

Evocations by the Supreme Court of the constitutional promise of justice for all communities quickly fell on the deaf ears of the political executive.

Evocations by the Supreme Court of the constitutional promise of justice for all communities quickly fell on the deaf ears of the political executive. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU

Justice Delayed

Notwithstanding the disturbing facts of state bias highlighted by the petitioners previously, the Court only had its next hearing in July, almost two months since May 17. As the number of those killed increased to more than 100 in June, the Manipur Tribal Forum Delhi, a petitioner, filed an application for the deployment of the Army, etc., to protect identified tribal districts and sought an urgent hearing before the vacation bench of the Supreme Court. However, the Court refused to admit the request based on the rather fallacious reasoning that its intervention may “aggravate” the situation and create “more problems” and listed the matter on July 3.

Also Read | Meira Paibis: How Manipur’s peace-keepers became agents provocateur

Shortly after the viral video depicting two tribal women being paraded naked and later gang-raped by a Meitei mob surfaced on social media, the Supreme Court on July 20 took suo-motu cognizance. In subsequent proceedings, the Court summoned the DGP of Manipur Police and directed the filing of a tabulated statement/status report on the progress of the investigation of inter alia 11 FIRs relating to violence, including sexual violence against women and children. In its August 7 judgement and order, the Court noted the need to ensure a fair administration of justice in all aspects and build confidence in the investigative and prosecutorial process. For the same, it appointed a 3-judge committee chaired by Retd. CJ. Gita Mittal. Separately, it appointed a retired DGP of the Maharashtra cadre to exercise overall supervision in terms of the investigations being carried out.

The evocations by the Supreme Court of the constitutional promise of justice for all communities quickly fell on the deaf ears of the political executive. This is clear from an instance, where the victims were two Meitei teenagers. Soon after an image surfaced on social media of the two missing teenagers, the Union Home Ministry, with almost frightening alacrity, supplanted the Court’s orders overnight. It sent a Special Director of the CBI to Imphal to fast-track the investigation and in less than a week, four accused persons from the Kuki-Zomi tribes were arrested.

Indeed, there were early signs of fluctuating investigatory speed and prosecutorial efficiency based on the ethnicity of the victims as gleaned from the August 1 status report; in particular, this served as a striking example, where the Manipur Police is reported to have used all possible technical investigatory methods, such as CDR analysis, examination of CCTV footage and satellite imagery to locate the accused persons.

The actions taken thus beg the question: If the CBI could act with such promptness to arrest those whom the Chief Minister declared as the “main culprits”, why not the same swiftness in the investigation of the killing of David Thiek/Tuolor, whose head was decapitated in Langza village in July, put up for display on a bamboo fence, and graphic videos/images of the same circulated on social media.

Unanswered questions

For additional context, it is important to mention that the Supreme Court in its July 11 order had directed positive action on 13 concrete suggestions relating to relief and rehabilitation submitted by another petitioner, the Zomi Students’ Federation. In particular, the petitioner had suggested that steps be taken to: (a) transfer approx. 209 displaced Zo medical students of JNIMS and RIMS, Imphal, to other institutions outside Manipur (similar to those Meitei students enrolled in Churachandpur Medical College (CMC)) who were promptly allowed to attend classes at JNIMS and RIMS); (b) begin the process of identification and handover of the dead bodies lying in mortuaries across Imphal to the next-of-kin.

In this regard, even as the Court’s specific directions remained without implementation and repeated pleas to the J. Gita Mittal committee went unanswered, what followed was: Firstly, a complete denial of education through the loss of critical learning days for approx. 7 months, including some students who were even debarred from sitting for their semester examinations on specious grounds like the non-fulfilment of attendance requirements. Until the National Medical Commission in late November permitted the conduct of hybrid/online classes for the Zo medical students at CMC, a medical college that received authorisation to admit students only in 2022.

Almost all the Kuki-Zomi legislators had their homes attacked and were forced to flee Imphal.

Almost all the Kuki-Zomi legislators had their homes attacked and were forced to flee Imphal. | Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Zomi Students’ Federation Media/IT Cell

Secondly, the bodies of deceased persons would have likely been decomposed beyond recognition. Indeed, the next-of-kin of deceased persons might have refused to claim the bodies based on “pressures” exercised by the tribal CSOs to conduct a mass burial, purportedly responsible for “keeping the pot boiling” as the Supreme Court remarked on November 28 based on a report filed by the J. Gita Mittal Committee.

Here, instead of obfuscating, the only relevant question left to be asked by the Supreme Court and its appointed committee is to the State government for its calculated incompetence: Why were the bodies left to decompose in morgues for a prolonged period? Note here that the SoPs for identification and disposal, etc., came to light for the first time in August (finalised only in October).

Let me conclude with a lament about the Supreme Court and its response in the context of the unequal ethnic violence in Manipur. What also needs close attention is the determined use of the platform of a constitutional court (and, the inclination of the Supreme Court to lend its ears) for the constant vilification and demonisation of the Zo ethnic tribes, including the Zo deceased persons, as “infiltrators and illegal migrants from Myanmar” or “narco-terrorists”.

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Notably, the Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (COCOMI), an umbrella body of Meitei CSOs had in a mass public gathering on July 29, demanded the implementation of a National Register of Citizens in Manipur (echoing a resolution adopted by the Manipur Legislative Assembly in 2022).

Given this and the constitutional challenge to Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, being heard by the Supreme Court, the fear is writ large that the ultimate intent of perpetuating falsehoods before the Supreme Court may be to force the Court to judicialise the rhetoric of “large scale illegal migration”; similar to how the Court declared immigration to be an “external aggression” premised on Article 355, and by deception laid the foundations for the dehumanising NRC process in Assam through its judgments in Sarbananda Sonowal I and II.

John Simte is an advocate based in New Delhi.

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