The Supreme Court has struck back in a landmark case on extra-judicial killings by security personnel. And of all the ironies, India’s Army chief Bipin Rawat can say to several hundred of his officers and men: I told you so; it was a bad idea to go to court in the first place.

As it happens, the army is now embarrassed by their plea of recusal by a bench of the Supreme Court being dismissed by that very bench on 12 November.

The embarrassment extends to Manipur Police personnel who, like the army men, are discomfited by a Supreme Court mandated investigation being conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into extrajudicial deaths in Manipur. The collective plea for recusal was underscored by India’s attorney general K.K. Venugopal who in end-September told the bench that he had “instructions from the Union of India that we are supporting these petitions".

Former attorney general and senior lawyer Mukul Rohatgi told the bench of “genuine apprehension" among petitioners that they wouldn’t receive a fair trial. Both suggested security forces were demoralized on this account.

The plea was based on a development on 30 July, when the two-judge bench criticized CBI director Alok Verma for going slow on investigation and filing of cases and charges against several accused of extrajudicial killings. The bench suggested that “murderers" were meanwhile roaming free in Manipur. The petitioners quickly latched on to this statement and demanded recusal of the judges.

This past Monday, Justices Madan Bhimrao Lokur and Uday Umesh Lalit dismissed the plea and the apprehension. They said it should be “clear" to all that security personnel “are made of much sterner stuff than is sought to be projected … It is unfortunate that a bogey of demoralization of the Indian Army, paramilitary forces and the state police is being raised …"

Since 2017, CBI has pursued the matter of extrajudicial killings in Manipur with oversight by the Supreme Court. This is based on a public interest litigation, or PIL, in the Supreme Court by the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association, Manipur, and the Imphal-based Human Rights Alert, a watchdog.

The public interest litigation alleges that 1,528 extrajudicial killings between 1980 and 2011. The allegations were against the Indian Army, Assam Rifles, several central paramilitary forces, and Manipur Police. The army and Assam Rifles operated—operates—under the prophylactic of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, or AFSPA, which offers impunity and immunity.

Manipur Police are not protected by AFSPA but they piggybacked on the practice of security forces. At a hearing in April 2017, a Supreme Court bench directed that cases of the army and Assam Rifles, and those of the police, be segregated for investigation and judicial process.

The bench also dismissed a plea that internal inquiry of some incidents by the army was adequate.

It all began to snowball this year in early August, when CBI filed charges against Major (now Colonel) Vijay Singh Balhara for allegedly causing the extrajudicial death in Manipur of a 12-year-old boy. A commission of inquiry by retired Supreme Court judge Santosh Hegde had earlier identified the incident—from six that he chose at random—as an extrajudicial killing by Balhara and his colleagues.

Later in August and early September, two separate groups of army personnel filed a plea in the Supreme Court against any possible dilution in AFSPA over human rights concerns. Later in September, a major general, Rajeeva Kumar, joined the 740 petitioners.

All this overrode the displeasure of General Bipin Rawat, who even criticized the action of his colleagues on 2 September, during an interaction with senior officers and their spouses in New Delhi.

The general is no dove. He thought the pro-AFSPA petitions unwise. That, if the court overturned the appeal it could actually open the possibility of diluting—eventually even revoking—AFSPA through Acts of Parliament.

AFSPA isn’t done yet, but the ill-advised attempt to get the judges to recuse themselves has justifiably brought renewed attention to a case that isn’t going away in a hurry.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

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