Manipur Government’s disregard for rule of law

Manipur’s descent into lawlessness is now almost complete. No longer is this about unlawful organizations challenging the state and its institutions; it has to do with the behaviors of those who are entrusted to be the law’s custodians. This became quite evident yet again in the proceedings inside the Manipur Legislative Assembly during the August 10 confidence vote.

What also became stark was the basic character of Manipur politics, marked by a singular lack of loyalty to ideology and determined solely by the lure of spoils of power. It may be recalled that the March 2017 elections to the 60-member Manipur Assembly threw up a hung verdict, with the Congress missing the majority mark of 31, bagging 28 seats.

The BJP returned 21, but the state governor, Najma Heptulla, turned down the Congress request to form the next government and instead placed her trust in a BJP-led coalition. In the months thereafter, eight Congress MLAs defected to the BJP, but the Speaker, Y Khemchand, refused disqualification petitions for three years. On March 28 this year, a Supreme Court intervention led to the disqualification of one.

Of the remaining seven, the Speaker disqualified three on the eve of the June 18 election to Manipur’s lone Rajya Sabha seat when they decided to return to the Congress fold, thus ensuring victory for the BJP candidate. There is then the question of why the Monsoon Session was held for only one day to hold the confidence vote, despite requests for a longer session to discuss other urgent issues.

The understanding that the Assembly, unlike the government, is the voice of all the people of the state represented by ruling and opposition MLAs and that honest debates here can sanctify government policies as having the mandate of the entire state was allowed to go up in smoke. In its hubris as the majority formation in power, the government often presumes it is the sole arbitrator of state policies, forgetting that the opposition represents another huge section of the population. It is the voice of this section that is increasingly getting silenced in the state’s policy initiatives.

The state is faced with many urgent issues currently. The COVID challenge is one. In the last five months of the pandemic reaching the state, the government has made several false steps. For instance, the state clearly misjudged the likely span of the crisis, leading to superfluous utilization of resources and energy at the very start, and unnecessarily fatigued the population and state alike before time. Strategies on the matter could have been thrashed out meaningfully, with inputs from the House as a collective.

There should also have been time slotted to discuss how Manipur can accommodate a Naga peace settlement amicably without accentuating the state’s already unenviable ethnic frictions, but also without jeopardizing the peace process. This issue too was ignored and left to be tackled in the government’s characteristic way of knee-jerk responses to every emergent crisis.

Then there is the question of the way the Speaker conducted the trust vote. The Speaker decided on a voice vote, but how can such a crucial decision be based on which of the choruses, one saying “Aye” and the other “Nay”, was louder, especially when the difference in number between the two sides is marginal? There will also be no way of determining cross-voting from either side, and this problem was important enough for Congress to issue a whip to its legislators to vote as per the party’s decision, suspecting there were Trojan Horses within its ranks.

The Speaker ruled that the government won the trust vote, but the opposition asked for a division vote; the Speaker disallowed this, leading to acrimony inside the Assembly. The Manipur Assembly “Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business” does mention in Rule 360 that if asked for, the Speaker should arrange for a division vote, but the rule book is unclear on whether the Speaker is bound to concede to such a demand.

This being so, the resolution should have been sought in accordance with precedents in India. Interestingly, the Lok Sabha “Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business” Rule 367 clearly mentions that if even a single member challenges a voice vote decision, the Speaker is obliged to hold a division vote. Even if the Speaker thinks such a move is irrelevant because one side is overwhelmingly in the majority, he is still obliged to have all “Aye” and “Nay” sayers stand up in turns and do a headcount without going through the more cumbersome exercise of a division vote.

Precedents from other Commonwealth countries that follow the same system should also have been noted. In these countries, the voice vote is already disused except in cases of lightly contested matters where the need was just to arrive at a consensus. This complete disregard for rule of law at this level can only further erode public esteem in the system and can be dangerous for a state already prone to problems of severe law and order breaches.

The author is the editor, Imphal Free Press

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express. The views expressed are personal.