Manipur probe ‘lethargic, tardy’: Supreme Court summons DGP

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An anguished Supreme Court lashed out at the “lethargic” and “tardy” probe into the loss of human lives, dignity and properties during the ethic violence in Manipur, lamenting that the state has seen an “absolute breakdown of constitutional machinery for two months”, and summoning the state’s director general of police (DGP) on August 7 to furnish an explanation.

“One thing is clear; the state police are incapable of investigations. It’s absolutely clear they have lost control of law and order in the state…There is no law and order left in Manipur. Investigation is so lethargic. For two months, FIRs are not recorded, arrests are not made, and statements are recorded after such a lapse of time,” said a bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud.

The bench asked the DGP to adduce all records relating to the date of incidents, timing of registrations of FIRs, arrests made, and the recordings of the victims’ statements.

“If even FIRs could not be registered for two months since May 3, this gives the impression that there was no law. Maybe it is correct that arrest could not be made because police could not enter the localities. Assuming that it was so, does it not point out there was a complete breakdown of law and order and the constitutional machinery in the state?” the bench, which also included justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, asked solicitor general (SG) Tushar Mehta.

Under Article 356 of the Constitution, breakdown of constitutional machinery is a ground to impose President’s Rule in a state.

Mehta, representing the N Biren Singh government, responded that the state was still not witnessing the complete breakdown of constitutional machinery, and that there has been no lethargy after the Union government ordered a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the case related to a video of two women being stripped and paraded naked.

But the bench retorted: “People who are living in the state, if law and order machinery cannot protect them then what happens to the people?”

Addressing the May 4 viral video case, where three women were stripped and at least one of them was gang-raped and her brother and father killed, the bench pointed out that the victims said in their statements that they were handed over to a frantic mob by the police.

“What has happened after their statements? Have those personnel been identified or arrested? Did the DGP try to find out who those policemen were? Have they been interrogated? What has the DGP done so far? Isn’t it his duty to do this?” it asked Mehta, who, on his part, requested the bench to await the outcome of the preliminary investigation by CBI into the case.

Mehta, who informed the bench that 11 out of 6,523 FIRs involved offences against women and children, offered that all these 11 FIRs could be handed over to CBI.

The bench, however, asked him: “And what about the remaining 6,000-odd FIRs? The state police clearly cannot investigate. If you dump it on CBI, you will render that agency dysfunctional since CBI is not capable of handling such a volume. It would be important in a situation like this to have a mechanism in place to bifurcate the FIRs and find out how many of them involve serious offences like murder, rape, destruction of homes and places of worship, serious bodily injuries and suchlike crimes.”

Referring to Mehta’s repeated statements that the Centre has now intervened, the bench remarked: “It’s clear from the records that for those two months, between May 3 and July, police was not in charge. They did something perfunctory. They were not in charge either because they were incapable of doing it or unwilling to do it.”

Even as it permitted CBI to record the statements of the victims of May 4 incident that was handed over to the agency by the Centre on July 27, the court said that it is contemplating forming a committee, consisting of some former high court judges and others, who, under its remit, may give recommendations on relief and rehabilitation, compensation as well as to ensure that the investigation is fair.

“Subject to hearing both sides, who will conduct the investigation is also something you should think about. There are around 6,500 FIRs. Obviously, you cannot transfer lock, stock and barrel everything to CBI. And we have serious limitations to the state police looking into these FIRs,” it told Mehta.

Clashes between the dominant Meitei community and the tribal Kukis first erupted on May 3 during a protest against a high court order proposing scheduled tribe (ST) status to the Meiteis. Violence quickly engulfed the state where ethnic fault lines run deep, displacing tens of thousands of people who fled burning homes and neighbourhoods into jungles, often across state borders. At least 150 people have lost their lives in the violence so far.

The authorities quickly clamped a curfew and suspended internet, pumping in additional security forces to force a break in the spiraling clashes.

On June 4, the Union government formed a three-member judicial inquiry panel to probe the ethnic violence in Manipur on the recommendation of the state government. A bunch of petitions relating to the violence in the northeastern state also queued before the top court, which has been monitoring rescue, relief and rehabilitation measures since the third week of May. On July 20, the court also took a suo motu cognisance of the horrific video of the assault on three women on May 4, terming it “deeply disturbing” and “grossest violation of constitutional rights”, as it threatened to step in if the Centre and the state failed to act.

During the proceedings on Tuesday, Mehta told the bench that of the 6,523 FIRs, he was unable to furnish a break-up of incidents involving other serious offences such as murder and destruction of houses. The bench replied that the information is “inadequate”. “State must carry out the process of segregation and inform the court on how many FIRs deal with murder, rape, arson and looting, destruction of house property, outraging of modesty of woman and destruction of places of religious worship and grievous hurt,” said its order.

The order further recorded: “Based on the preliminary data, it prima facie appears that investigation has been tardy with considerable lapse between occurrence and the registration of the FIR, recording of witness statements and arrests have been few and far between. In order to help the court to determine the nature of investigation, we direct the DGP, Manipur, to remain personally present before the court on August 7.”

Apart from other details as mentioned above, in respect of each FIR, the court directed, the tabular statement by the DGP shall mention if the accused have been named in the FIR and the status of arrest.

When informed during the hearing that 118 bodies are still lying morgues in Manipur, the bench asked the SG to come back on August 7 with information about the mechanism of handing over bodies to their families and the compensation package. “They cannot keep rotting and you cannot keep 118 bodies indefinitely in a morgue. Some solution will have to be found,” it observed.

Senior advocate Jaideep Gupta, appearing for two Meitei organisations, submitted there is another case in which a woman was burnt alive that is not a part of the 11 cases adduced before the bench. The court asked Gupta to give the details of the 12th case to Mehta so that the DGP can gather information about it.

“We want to approach this issue with absolute data. We have, therefore, asked for full disclosure of data. We have something in mind for the ultimate order, but it is subject to us deducing the final data submitted to us. Our approach is irrespective of who is the perpetrator and who is the victim. An offence is an offence irrespective of who is the perpetrator and who is the victim,” the bench told Gupta.

Senior advocate Ranjit Kumar, appearing for the High Court Bar Association of Manipur, voiced his concerns over illegal immigration from Myanmar and the alleged involvement of drug cartels in fanning the violence in the northeastern state.

The bench, however, told him: “People who were raped and murdered were our people. We have to ensure that justice is done.”