New Delhi: The efforts by a collective of army officers to scuttle Central Bureau of Investigation probes into allegations of extra-judicial killings have been stopped by the Supreme Court.
On Monday, a two-judge bench comprising Justice Madan B. Lokur and Justice U.U. Lalit said there was “no merit” to petitions filed by about 700 army officers, who told the Supreme Court that these two judges should stop hearing the case and that it should be transferred to a different bench. Their application was dismissed.
The application was triggered by Justice Lokur’s remark in court in July asking the CBI why it had not conducted custodial interrogations of men in the armed forces who have been charged with murder. As The Wire reported, when the CBI did not have any reply, Justice Lokur remarked wryly that accused murderers were “roaming” around in Manipur while survivors were living in fear.
On the ‘demoralisation’ of the armed forces
One of the arguments put forward by the officers is that the Indian army, paramilitary forces and Manipur police have been “demoralised” by observations made by the Supreme Court judges regarding extra-judicial killings in Manipur.
To this, the judges responded directly and sharply in their 20-page order, calling it an “overbroad submission” that has been stretched to its “vanishing point”. They said the armed forces are made of “sterner stuff” and the apprehension that they have been demoralised “is suggestive of a weakness in them”. The judges also questioned whether there was actually a situation of “demoralisation”, saying that there was “no material to support the theory”.
The court also dealt with the contention of the army officers that the investigation into extra-judicial killings was unfair.
To this, the judges said that it was “inappropriate” for the army officers to think that trial court judges would be unfairly influenced on matters of extra-judicial killings. The judges said the army officers’ claim that there was “interference” in the CBI investigations was “not real or justified”.
This two-judge special bench passed historic orders in 2016 and 2017, directing the CBI to open investigations into hundreds of alleged fake encounters in Manipur. This was culled out of a long list of 1,528 cases of encounter killings placed before the court in a PIL filed in 2012.
The real possibility of investigation and prosecution in these hundreds of cases has triggered discontent within the Indian armed forces and the Manipur state police.
However, the order passed on Monday comes as a setback to the army, which has been trying to change the course of the case.
Attempts to derail investigations
Under the special bench’s scrutiny, the CBI has only this year begun to file FIRs and chargesheets in a few cases. They were expected to file the chargesheets by December 31, 2017.
In response to this development, army officers have been pushing back for months, filing various petitions in the Supreme Court, asking for this case to be stopped entirely.
For example in one petition, the army officers have told the court that even FIRs cannot be registered against serving army officers by investigating agencies, let alone prosecution. As The Wire reported in August, one of these cases pertains to the death of a 12-year-old boy. In fresh FIRs filed by the CBI, Vijay Singh Balhara, who is now a Colonel in the Indian Army, has been named.
The army officers have also challenged in the Supreme Court, the very grounds on which the case is being heard. They claim that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act doesn’t allow the case and would need to be amended first.
If there was any ambiguity on whether the court-monitored investigation into killings in Manipur is at all linked to the show of strength by the Indian Army, the Supreme Court order addresses it. “These petitions are a fall-out of the decision rendered by us in Extra-Judicial Execution Victim Families Association v. Union of India and subsequent orders passed therein by way of a continuing Mandamus,” it says.