Last week, Manipur saw a deadly wave of violence between Kuki and Meitei communities that left at least 58 people dead and over 20,000 people displaced.

In the aftermath of the violence, confusion has prevailed about who is handling security matters in the state – Manipur government or the Centre.

As the Centre rushed additional army and paramilitary troops to Manipur, state politicians and police officials gave statements that created the impression that the Central government had invoked Article 355 of the Indian Constitution to take charge of law and order in the state. Article 355 states that it shall be the duty of the Centre to protect every state against external aggression or internal disturbances.

However, the Centre has denied that Article 355 has been invoked.

Scroll spoke to experts who said there is no need for the Centre to invoke the Constitutional provision to send security forces to a state. A former home secretary said there is nothing unusual about the Centre’s intervention. On the contrary, he argued it was much needed and the Union home ministry should have better anticipated the crisis as tensions had been building up in Manipur for months.

Confusion over Article 355

The violence first erupted in the hill district of Churachandpur on Wednesday after thousands participated in a protest march organised by the All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur to oppose demands by the majority Meitei community to be included in the Scheduled Tribe category.

As the violence spread other parts of the state, the Union government moved additional soldiers from the Indian Army and the Assam Rifles, a central government-controlled paramilitary force, into Manipur. Even the Indian Air Force was pressed into service. It flew sorties to keep a watch over Imphal, the state’s capital, among other violence-hit areas.

Days later, the violence appears to have been brought under control.

Smoke billows from a house burned during the violence in Churachandpur district of Manipur. Credit: AFP
Smoke billows from a house burned during the violence in Churachandpur district of Manipur. Credit: AFP.

But while fires still raged in the state, confusion prevailed over who was in charge of security matters.

On Thursday, Rajkumar Imo Singh, an MLA from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, tweeted a picture of the government notification issuing shoot-at-sight orders in the name of the governor. Alongside, he said in the tweet that Article 355 had been implemented in the state.

Manipur’s Director-General of Police P Doungel corroborated this on Friday. Speaking to reporters, he said, “Article 355 is there so that Centre takes more attention on the affairs of the state and that is why the advisor has been sent.” This was a reference to Kuldiep Singh, the former chief of the Central Reserve Police Force, who had been appointed as a security advisor to Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh by the Union Home Ministry.

These statements led to an understanding that the Centre had taken over Manipur’s security under Article 355.

However, The Hindu reported on Friday that the home ministry had denied having invoked Article 355. On Sunday, a local news organisation also cited Kuldiep Singh as saying that Article 355 had not been promulgated. Further, no Union government notification announcing imposition of these emergency measures had been issued as of Sunday.

What experts say

Gopal Krishna Pillai, who served as the Union Home Secretary between 2009 and 2011, said the invocation of Article 355 would be a decision involving the Union Cabinet. “We would have seen a formal order if it had been done,” he said.

Pillai added that Article 355 only allows the Centre to play an advisory role and does not mean taking over the state’s administration. “It provides for the Centre to act in the aid of the state,” he said. “This means issuing advisories to the state or helping it with decisions.”

Alok Prasanna, senior resident fellow at the think tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, argued that “invoking Article 355” is a meaningless statement as it is the Union government’s duty, not a power. “There is no question of ‘promulgating’ it,” Prasanna said. “There’s nothing to ‘use’ in Article 355.”

This is also the reason why Article 355 has never been harnessed. “Only a power can be invoked, not a duty,” Prasanna said. “Article 355 was only envisaged as a stepping stone towards invoking Article 356 [President’s rule].”

Why, then, was the shoot-at-sight order issued in the name of the governor? Prasanna pointed out that all state government orders are issued in the name of the governor. “The governor’s ‘shoot at sight’ order has nothing to do with the Centre’s intervention or Article 355,” Prasanna said. “The governor doesn’t rule in the name of the Union.”

Photo of the Army and Assam Rifles conducting a flag march in Imphal used for representation. Credit: PTI
Photo of the Army and Assam Rifles conducting a flag march in Imphal used for representation. Credit: PTI

The need for central support

Experts said the Centre’s intervention to support a state government maintain law and order is a routine practice. “Sending the Army to help a state maintain law and order is a well-established practice, such as during the 2002 Gujarat riots,” Pillai said. “What has happened is normal.”

Despite the Centre not basing its intervention formally on Article 355, it will be able to do what the provision wants it to do. “In the case of Manipur, the governments at the Centre and in the state are of the same party,” Pillai added. “Therefore, you don’t have a real problem with the state government not listening to the Centre’s advice.”

What triggered this quick intervention by the Centre is Manipur’s unique challenges, experts suggest.

An author and analyst based in the North East, who did not want to be identified, said that the ongoing crisis would have been worse had the Centre not taken this strong action. “The fact that over 20,000 people have been evacuated gives us a sense of the scale of the violence,” they said.

The analyst added that part of the Centre’s concern may have been that the situation could escalate as there are insurgency groups in Manipur and on the other side of the state’s border with Myanmar.

Pillai concurred with this view. “Manipur shares a hostile border with Myanmar,” he said. “Refugees have been coming in large numbers from Myanmar [due to the civil war there]. But there are also militant groups operating there who may take advantage of the situation. So, the Centre quickly moved in.”

Citing news reports, Pillai added that another reason the Centre may have decided to react quickly was because there were alleged incidents of looting of police weapons. “The Centre acted well, but they should have anticipated this [crisis] because tensions had been building up,” he added.