Supreme Court’s Refusal to Deploy Security Forces in Manipur: Rare or Standard Procedure?
Precedents indicate that the Supreme Court has frequently directed the deployment of paramilitary forces to maintain law and order.
“You are asking the court to direct the Indian Army and paramilitary to take particular steps. Frankly…in the last over 70 years, the Supreme Court has not given directions to the armed forces…. One of the great hallmarks of democracy (is) civilian control over the armed force. Let’s not breach that. That’s one of the strong points of this nation. We will not do that. We are not going to issue directions to the Army.”
This was CJI D.Y. Chandrachud on July 11th, 2023, responding to a plea made by Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves, urging the deployment of the Indian Army or Paramilitary forces in Manipur. Gonsalves appearing for the Manipur Tribals’ Forum Delhi (MTFD) urged the top Court to increase security measures amid ‘escalating violence’ in the State. According to figures submitted by the state government, so far the conflict has claimed over 140 lives and displaced over 50,000 people. Interestingly, the Manipur government has been consistently assuring the top Court that the state is on the path to ‘normalcy’
CJI Chandrachud asserted that the top Court does not possess the authority to ‘function as a security or law enforcement apparatus’. The Bench, which also consisted of Justices P.S. Narasimha and Manoj Misra, observed that the maintenance of law and order is a part of the Manipur and the Union Governments’ domain.
Previously, on June 20th, the vacation bench of the Supreme Court also refused to list a plea by the MTFD for Army protection for Kuki tribes and noted that it was ‘hoping’ that the courts will not be asked to deploy the Army or other Central security forces.
Though the Army and paramilitary forces have been deployed by the Home Ministry in Manipur since May 4th, 2023, it hasn’t been effective in controlling the violence and displacement, argued Gonsalves.
The CJI’s remarks raise an interesting question—What is the top Court’s perspective on directing military or paramilitary forces? Such deployment comes exclusively under the executive powers and could be seen as ‘judicial overreach’, but the Court has gone over and above its powers to restore order in selective instances.
SCO has found instances where although the Supreme Court has not directly deployed the Army, it has issued directions to the paramilitary forces on multiple occasions.
Paramilitary Deployment During Communal Clashes
Communal conflicts, and the legal trials that follow them, are often sites of intimidation and skewed power dynamics. The trials that followed the 2002 Gujarat Riots, were marked by the intimidation of eye-witnesses. The Supreme Court, on March 15, 2004, asked the Union to identify witnesses in nine cases and deployed paramilitary forces to protect them. In 2009, a Court appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) was created to freshly investigate some of these matters. The Court again directed the deployment of paramilitary forces for witness protection. Soon, two companies of CISF were on duty, and a section of personnel was deployed as pickets in areas of high-witness concentration like Naroda Patia.
In 2020, Hathras, a small village in eastern Uttar Pradesh, became a site of serious tension. Dominant groups of the village threatened violence against a family of a rape victim from a Dalit community. The Uttar Pradesh police allegedly mishandled the investigation. The Court directed the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel to be deployed to provide witness protection to the family noting the ‘normal perception and pessimism’ with security being provided by the State government.
Beyond witness protection, the Court in certain conflicts has also passed specific orders directing forces. In 2008, as ethnic riots in Kandhamal, Odisha unfolded, the Court started simultaneously hearing matters on maintaining public order. On October 22, 2008, it directed to extend the deployment of ‘sufficient paramilitary forces’ in ‘the State of Orissa till December 2008.’
Security by Paramilitary Forces During Elections
On November 25th, 2021, the Supreme Court deployed the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) to maintain law and order during the Tripura municipal elections. The bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud asserted that the Court’s intervention was essential to guarantee ‘fair and free elections’. However, just three months later, another Bench, led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud dismissed a plea filed by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders seeking the deployment of paramilitary forces in the West Bengal Municipal Elections.
Fast forward to June 2023, a vacation Bench of the Supreme Court upheld an order passed by the Calcutta High Court which directed the deployment of paramilitary forces during the West Bengal Panchayat Polls. The High Court even directed the Centre to bear the costs associated with the deployment, citing West Bengal’s ‘history of violence’ during elections. This was during the second month of the ongoing Manipur violence.
Paramilitary Forces in Lawyers Protests
In 2015, the Supreme Court approved a Madras High Court order which deployed the Central Industrial Security Forces (CISF) inside the High Court premises. The High Court issued the order in response to heavy protests from practising lawyers who wanted Tamil to be recognised as the official language of the High Court. The top Court refused to interfere and went on to say that the High Court is competent to deploy the CISF—‘if High Court feels that there is inadequate security, it can certainly ask for CISF cover.’ Later in 2022, during the Odisha lawyer’s agitation, the Supreme Court made an oral remark demonstrating its capability to deploy paramilitary forces in a district court’s premises—‘If the police are not able to control it (lawyer’s protest), we will send the paramilitary’.
Who Deploys the Army?
According to Art. 355, deploying the Indian Army is vested in the hands of the Union government. It says that the Union government has a ‘duty’ to protect states from internal and external aggression. The Union can deploy the Armed forces even if there is no formal request by the State government. According to the Sarkaria Commission Report, the Union cannot be a ‘silent spectator’ and has a ‘constitutional obligation’ to deploy its armed forces in states, when it is required.
CJI Chandrachud’s earlier observation that ‘civilian control’ over the military is a ‘hallmark of democracy’ is the principle that Article 355 stands on. Civilian Control is when a democratically elected leader has the power to direct the Armed forces, rather than military leaders. The Judiciary cannot issue directions under Article 355. For tackling internal violence, the Union has rarely directed the Indian Army. Notably, the Army was deployed in the 2002 Gujarat Riots. In the case of Manipur violence, the MTFD has alleged that no directions have been issued under Article 355, leading them to approach the Supreme Court.
In response to the recent viral video depicting sexual violence against two Kuki women from Manipur on social media, the Court finally reacted with anger and CJI Chandrachud sternly called the incident ‘simply unacceptable’ and ‘deeply disturbing’, and asked the Union and State governments to apprise the Court of what action they have taken in regard to this. ‘If the government does not act, we will’ CJI Chandrachud exclaimed. Both women were assaulted and one of them was raped in early May this year.
Since then reports have come out with one of the victims alleging that they were handed over to the mob by the police themselves and that the National Commission for Women refused to take action even when they were appealed to. Following the Supreme Court’s statement, the state police finally acted on the FIR and made four arrests this Thursday (July 20th, 2023).