It’s difficult to skirt an issue when it involves the Supreme Court, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Manipur.
A two-judge bench of the apex court on 27 July pulled up CBI for delays in investigating extrajudicial killings in Manipur and in filing of charges. On 30 July, justice M.B. Lokur and justice U.U. Lalit hammered home the point when they summoned CBI director Alok Verma.
The judges became impatient when CBI’s representatives and counsel cited procedure and, again, when Verma mentioned that 14 people had been charged for their alleged roles in extrajudicial killings. (The central government had tasked CBI with the investigation when it could not hold off the court’s queries any longer.)
There is reason for the court’s impatience. The hearings are on account of a public interest litigation, or PIL, by the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association, Manipur, and the Imphal-based Human Rights Alert (HRA), a watchdog. The PIL alleged 1,528 extrajudicial killings between 1980 and 2011. The allegations were against the Indian Army, its adjunct Assam Rifles, several central paramilitary forces, and the Manipur Police.
While police are not protected by the immunity-and-impunity provisions of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, they piggybacked on the practice of security forces to conduct their own campaigns of interdiction and intimidation.
At a hearing in April 2017, the Supreme Court bench directed that cases of the army and Assam Rifles, and those of the police be segregated for investigation and judicial process. It dismissed a plea that internal inquiry of several incidents by the army was adequate.
In July 2017, a Supreme Court bench also brushed aside the adequacy of claims by the government that compensation had been paid to families of the victims—as I wrote at the time, admission of wrongdoing. Compensation could not compensate for the law of the land. The court underscored its own observation from 2015: “Now it’s like you kill 10 people, pay compensation and the matter ends there." In any case, several cases of compensation claimed by Manipur’s government were exposed by local media as being false.
On 14 July 2017, a Supreme Court bench ordered CBI to conclude investigations into the “fake encounters or use of excessive or retaliatory force" by the end of 2017. That was also the deadline for filing cases.
On 16 January, a Supreme Court bench expressed displeasure at the speed of CBI’s investigation and compliance of deadline, and urged the agency’s director to personally take charge. There have been several hearings since.
It is worth noting that CBI has undertaken to investigate 97 instances of extrajudicial killings between 2000 and 2011, a vastly lower number from what was included in the original PIL; and only four instances, by CBI’s own admission, for which it claims readiness to file charges.
I will ask the same questions I’ve asked for more than a year. Will CBI’s investigation proceed unhampered? Will justice be served? How far can CBI push, even if the Supreme Court keeps pushing CBI?
The answers appear to be: No; in a very truncated way; and, not far. Because, beyond upsetting the army and paramilitary forces, it may upset political equations in Manipur.
Okram Ibobi Singh of the Congress was chief minister from 2002 until March 2017. Nongthombam Biren Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and, formerly of the Congress, then became chief minister after the assembly elections concluded. The deputy chief minister of the BJP-led coalition is Yumnam Joykumar Singh of the National People’s Party. The coalition cobbled together numbers to keep out the Congress, which had won the most seats.
Joykumar was Manipur’s director general of police from March 2007 to January 2012, and again from June 2012 until his retirement in August 2013. He was widely regarded as Ibobi’s hammer during that time.
The Joykumar years transformed Manipur’s police, in particular the elite Manipur Police Commandos, into an extrajudicial, extra-constitutional force.
Details of human rights violations and extrajudicial killings during that time are part of the PIL.
The CBI has more than just straightforward crime to deal with.
This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.