Friday, December 1, 2023

The perils of FIRs in Manipur

The ethnic fault lines in Manipur have manifested in numerous occasions in the past, but the outrage, rampage and damage to humanity since May 2023 is unprecedented. There is no doubt that the conflict remains unabated evidenced by fresh attacks every now and then, in fact the violence continues to exhibit a peculiar design in disregarding the laws. The incriminating video of sexual assault brought to light apart from gross violations of human rights, the enormous number of First Information Report (FIR) registered in and out of the state, absence of police action reflected the indifferent attitude of the government and disregard for criminal justice, which begins with police investigation. The Supreme Court on August 1st, remark on the “tardy” attitude of the State Police towards the 6000+ FIRs was a welcome break from the lull of an otherwise partisan narrative in this context. The division for investigation of the FIRs; for instance sexual violence cases by CBI, are well versed attempts to ensure “there is a sense of faith and an overall feeling of objectivity”. The bench headed by the Chief Justice of India, on 24th August had ordered the transfer of sexual violence related cases to Assam bearing in mind the need for ensuring “criminal justice administration”.
What sets the criminal justice system in motion? It is the reporting of crime to the nearest police station manned by the Station House Officer, the First Information Report (FIR). Every public official is required by law to abstain from acting under dictation in the discharge of his/her duty, failing of which results in abuse of administrative discretion. This is not to dispute the mandatory obligation of section 154 CrPC on the police to register FIR for commission of cognizable offence but the police must be convinced or satisfied that the information raises reasonable suspicion of commission of the alleged offence (Superintendent of Police , CBI v. Tapan Kumar Singh, 2003). The apex court in Binay Kumar Singh v. State of Bihar (1997) had categorically stated that it is open to the officer- in-charge to collect more information containing details about the occurrence, if available, so that he can consider whether a cognizable offence has been committed warranting investigation thereto. In Sevi v. State of Tamil Nadu (1984) the court had expressly ruled that before registering the FIR under section 154 of Cr PC it is open to the station house officer (SHO) to hold a preliminary enquiry to ascertain whether there is a prima facie case of commission of cognizable offence.
Any information if it qualifies to be FIR must be assessed on the basis of facts and circumstances of every case (Lalita kumari v. St. of UP, 2012). The Supreme Court in various cases have held that in some issues pertaining to allegations against professionals, or matrimonial disputes etc., preliminary investigation before the registration of FIR may be undertaken, as this will undoubtedly serve as a check on the multitude of frivolous complaints that could be lodged by mischief makers. Apart from others one of the objective of enabling registration of FIR is to enhance public faith in the Police. The Guidelines for Police Personnel on Various Human Rights Issues published by National Human Rights Commission in 2010 had unambiguously pointed out on the need for policemen to be sensitive towards the rights of the marginalised sections of the society so as to implement significant social legislations towards removal of societal discrimination.
The Chief Justice of India on August 28 at the 6th Chief Justice MC Chagla Memorial Lecture, emphasised the role of Public intellectuals referring to their “duty to expose the lies of the State”. There is a strong urge to appeal, that unless without adequate safeguards for protection against lodging of FIR in exercising the freedom to speech even when based on one’s academic pursuits, the risk of being entangled into legal battle appears too evident. An important aspect that calls for serious attention at this juncture in Manipur is the magnitude of legal abuse by some sections of the population incessantly lodging FIRs and registration by the state police making it too obvious to reflect any scientific application of mind by the officers. Take for example the recent FIR against the Editors Guild of India (EGI) fact-finding team that visited Manipur to study media reportage of its ethnic violence. CM Biren Singh justified the FIR alleging that EGI staffs were “trying to create more clashes in the state of Manipur”. Similarly in the case of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) fact finding team against whom the state had registered FIR in July alleging that the field report was an attempt to incite riots.
The FIR against Prof. Kham Khan Suan Hausing, (recipient of Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship) currently Professor of Political Science, Central University of Hyderabad, or the FIR against editors Dr. Jangkhomang Guite and Dr. Thongkholal Haokip (both professors at Jawaharlal Nehru University) of a book, leaves one to admit that the the FIRs against them is undoubtedly to silence any difference of opinion. Justice Chandrachud expressed surprised as to how an FIR could be filed against the two professors for a book that was written in 2018.
Given the situation in Manipur with over 4 months of unresolved ethnic conflict, registering of FIR as an attempt to stifle the right to freedom of speech guaranteed under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution is undoubtedly abuse of law and blatant disregard of one’s democratic rights. Freedom of speech especially on political and public issues is the bloodline of any democracy. The value of democratic governance lies in informed democratic decision making based on a sense of participation where the voice of dissent is treated with the same respect as one that is concurring. FIR registered can be quashed by the High Court only after evaluation whether the ends of justice will be met or to prevent abuse of process of laws. With thousands of FIRs already pending investigation relating to heinous crimes, damage to properties and loss of lives, unmindful registration may do more harm than good. Vibhuti Narain Rai, author of the book ‘Shahar Mein Curfew’ notes that in communal violence, the police are never seen to be a friend by the minorities. Time has come for the state police to raise above ethnicity, exercise due diligence and prove its allegiance to the Rule of Law and not rule of men.
Mercy K Khaute Guite
India Today NE


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