The Supreme Court on Thursday morning expressed “deep concern” over the situation in Manipur and initiated proceedings, on its own accord, over the horrific video from May of two Kuki women being paraded naked in the state that emerged on Wednesday.

A bench presided by Chief Justice of India, DY Chandrachud told Attorney-General for India R Venkataramani and Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta that it was “deeply disturbed by the videos”, which it termed “simply unacceptable”.

It asked the Union and state governments to apprise it of the steps taken to book the perpetrators of the violence against the women, and warned, “We will give a little time to the government to act. Otherwise, we will take action if nothing is happening on the ground.” It listed the matter to be heard next on July 28.

But according to Indian law and the Constitution, can the Supreme Court actually do anything to intervene to stop Manipur’s civil war?

Can the Supreme Court order in troops?

Just last week, the Supreme Court had specifically refused an application to order the Union government to direct the Indian Army to take control of the law and order situation in certain districts and villages of Manipur in order to protect members of the Kuki community from being killed. It had stated that the court, in the last 72 years, had “never issued such directions to the Indian army. …The greatest hallmark of democracy is civilian control over the army and we cannot breach that.”

Instead, it asked the Centre and state governments to “make sufficient arrangements to ensure protection of lives and property of all citizens and residents of Manipur”.

However, there is recent precedent of the higher judiciary recommending to executive authorities the deployment of security forces to any region if deemed necessary. The Calcutta High Court had last month ordered the West Bengal State Election Commission to deploy central paramilitary troops to certain areas and districts of the state for the July 8 panchayat elections. The High Court’s decision was upheld by the Supreme Court on June 20.

Indian Army personnel patrol during a combing operation at Kanto Sabal village near Imphal on June 20. | AFP

President’s rule via court

Can the Supreme Court ask the Centre to dismiss the Manipur government and impose President’s rule under Article 356 of the Constitution? As per this provision, the Centre can take over the administration of a state in case of “failure of constitutional machinery” and impose President’s rule.

The Supreme Court has, in theory, unfettered discretion to do anything under Article 142 of the Constitution. This provision grants the Apex Court the wide and sweeping power to pass any order “as is necessary for doing complete justice” in any matter before it. Over the years, the court has, through its own judgments, attempted to explain the scope of the power as well as place checks on its unrestrained exercise.

This was the provision used by the court to provide the unique settlement in the Ayodhya dispute in 2019, wherein it handed the disputed land to a trust for the construction of a temple, and allocated separate land for the construction of a mosque. It was also used by the court to, among other things previously, arrive at a settlement amount to award compensation to the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1991, order an investigation into the Indian Premier League fixing scandal in 2013, and cancel suspect coal block allocations made by the government since 1993 in 2014.

However, while the court could potentially use Article 142 to control the Manipur violence, such a step has few precedents. The principle of separation of powers among the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the state means that a court recommending the imposition of President’s rule or taking over a critical executive function like law and order is unlikely.

That is why even though pleas have been filed before the Supreme Court to impose President’s Rule in certain states, such as in Maharashtra in 2020, and Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal in 2021, they have never been acted upon the Apex Court. In the same spirit, in 2020, it had stayed and censured an Andhra Pradesh High Court decision seeking an inquiry into whether President’s Rule was necessitated in Andhra Pradesh.

What the Union government can do

There had been claims made in May, when the violence first erupted in the state, that the Centre had taken over law and order in the state under Article 355 of the Constitution. Under Article 355, the Centre is duty bound to, among other things, “protect…[the state] against…internal disturbance”. However, it does not grant any substantive power to the Centre to do so, and there is no precedent for the same. The Centre did not notify any formal order to such an effect either.

However, the Union Home Ministry had appointed a former chief of the Central Reserve Police Force, Kuldiep Singh, as security adviser to the Manipur chief minister in May. It is highly unusual for the Centre to appoint advisers for a state government or its ministers. The Army, the Assam Rifles – a central government-controlled paramilitary force, and the Air Force were eventually deployed in the state.

At the time, Manipur’s overall law and order commander was reporting to Singh, which meant that the Union government had managed to exercise significant control over the government of Manipur even without any formal order to the effect.

Vehicles in flames after violence broke out in Manipur's Imphal on May 4. | PTI

The Centre does have a more direct constitutional route that it could avail of: using Article 356 of the Constitution.

Several stakeholders within Manipur have been demanding the imposition of President’s Rule in the state ever since violence erupted there. Manipur has already seen seven different spells of President’s Rule since it attained statehood in 1972: the longest ones being for 347 days between December 1993 and December 1994, and for 340 days between March 1973 and March 1974. Notably, the former instance was due to ethnic riots between Nagas and Kukis that had engulfed the state, and led to the loss of lives of over 1,000 persons.

Punjab was under President’s Rule through the 1980s and early 1990s, and the former state of Jammu and Kashmir stayed under President’s Rule through the first half of the 1990s, due to insurgency and breakdown of law and order.

President’s Rule has also variously been employed due to breakdown of law and order in Assam (1979-’80), Nagaland (1992-93), Tripura (1993) and Bihar (1999).