Supreme Court passes directions to secure places of worship in Manipur

Manipur Government to inform the Expert Committee on steps for securing vandalised places of worship.

A three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, and comprising Justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra passed certain directions to identify and secure places of worship in Manipur.

Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati informed the Bench that the Government of Manipur has identified the places of worship that were damaged during the ethnic violence in the state that started in May this year. 

Senior Advocate Huzefa Ahmadi, appearing for the Meitei Christian Council, argued that though the identification of destroyed places of worship was carried out, a comprehensive list of such places is not available. He claimed that 247 churches in the state were vandalised during the course of the ethnic violence, and urged that they be restored.

Responding to Ahmadi’s submission, the CJI asked Bhati, “What is being done by the State to protect the places of worship that were vandalised? What is the state doing to restore (them)?”

Bhati reiterated that the Government of Manipur has identified such places, adding that they have been “secured”.

Directions for securing places of worship

In its report dated 13 September 2023, the Justice Gita Mittal Expert Committee had recommended the Government of Manipur to “immediately identify” all religious buildings in the state that were vandalised, damaged or burnt during this year’s ethnic violence.

The Expert Committee was set up by the Supreme Court in August to oversee relief and rehabilitation of the victims of ethnic violence in Manipur.

An affidavit was filed by the Chief Secretary of the state on 17 October 2023 stating that the exercise of identification of such buildings was completed for 14 out of the 16 districts of Manipur.

After a short hearing yesterday, the Bench directed the Government of Manipur to furnish a comprehensive list of all places of worship that were vandalised to the Expert Committee within two weeks. 

The Bench clarified that the identification of such places shall not be limited to churches alone, and must span “across all religious denominations and be irrespective of the nature of the religious structure which has been damaged or destroyed, as the case may be.”

The Government of Manipur will also apprise the Expert Committee of the steps taken to secure the vandalised places of worship.

The Bench permitted the Expert Committee to prepare “a comprehensive proposal” on the restoration of places of worship which may have been destroyed. The Committee may look into the aspects of encroachments of places of worship. They directed the state Government and the Director General of Police, Manipur to coordinate with the Expert committee “so that interim suggestions of the committee can be implemented without delay.”

Ahmadi interjected, urging the Bench to pass specific directions to the state Government to ensure that people are able to congregate at places of worship to celebrate Christmas.

The CJI obliged and added that “Both the SG and the ASG assure the court that necessary steps would be taken to ensure that those in the relief camps are in a position to observe all ceremonies in connection with the impending Christmas festival.”

Granting an extension of time to the Expert Committee, the Bench clarified that the committee will continue to operate for the next six months. Previously, the Committee was scheduled to function for only two months.

As the Bench was about to conclude dictating the Order, Senior Advocate Jaideep Gupta asked the Bench to take note of his affidavit on the destruction of villages during the ethnic violence. “People are out in the open,” he pleaded, requesting the Court to issue directions for their rehabilitation. 

“We cannot take over the administration (of Manipur)”, the CJI responded, instructing him to approach the Expert Committee instead. However, the Bench then directed the Government of Manipur to review the affidavit and carry out an independent assessment.

The Court is scheduled to hear the matter again on 4 January 2024.