THE SUPREME Court Tuesday granted protection against coercive action to retired Army officer Colonel (Dr) Vijayakant Chenji and a professor, Henminlun alias Loon Gangte, who are facing FIRs in Manipur over a book and a public speech, respectively.
A three-judge Bench presided over by Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud granted the interim protection taking into account the submission by the two that they were unable to engage a lawyer before the Manipur High Court on account of the prevailing situation in the state, which has been seeing clashes between the Kuki-Zomis and Meiteis for over four months now.
The Bench, comprising Justices P S Narasimha and Manoj Misra besides the CJI, asked them to file affidavits attesting their inability to engage counsel in Manipur.
Their counsel said lawyers were being threatened, referring to another case where they withdrew. “After withdrawal, their houses and offices are ransacked. One had to flee, the other took refuge in CRPF camp.”
The Bench said, “… if there is substance, it’s a serious matter if lawyers are not appearing… Our conscience has to be satisfied that people are entitled to and are getting representation.”
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who was present in the court for some other matter, objected to the submissions and said: “This issue is being repeatedly raised… one section is bringing everything here, creating a picture that the courts (in Manipur) are closed… Let the Secretary General of this court speak to the Registrar General of the High Court whether it’s functioning or not… I am told that lawyers are appearing physically and virtually.”
The SG said he is not against any individual and had no problem if the Court wanted to protect the Colonel from arrest, but added that it seemed to him that “there is something more going on” given that petitions are being filed directly before the Supreme Court. “There is a pattern.”
The Bench made it clear that it was granting interim protection to Chenji. “He is a retired Colonel. He published a book in 2022. He is to be protected,” said the CJI, adding that the only question is whether the Court should send him back to the Manipur High Court. The Bench said it will take a decision on this after hearing the other side too.
In Gangte’s matter, the counsel submitted that he is unable to get the FIR, without which the High Court will not take his matter on record. He added that in Gangte’s case, “I won’t be able to hire a lawyer because he belongs to the minority community. Nobody will appear for me. In Imphal, all the people of that community have been ousted.”
The SG again intervened, calling the remarks objectionable and added that the petitioner should file an affidavit to back his claims.
A veteran of the 1971 war, Chenji published a book called The Anglo-Kuki War: Victory in Defeat two years ago. Recently, a civil society organisation called the Federation of Haomee filed an FIR against the retired Army officer, accusing him of “without any factual basis and evidence claiming the armed Kuki rebellion (1917-1919) as Anglo Kuki war”, and of reflecting “the biased view of one community”.
The sections invoked against Chenji include charges of “concealing design to commit offence”, “waging war against the government of India”, “concealing with intent to facilitate design to wage war”, “promoting enmity between different groups” and “using as true such declaration knowing it to be false’.
Alleged vandalisation of the Anglo-Kuki war memorial in Churachandpur is believed to have been one of the triggers for the Kuki-Meitei conflict.
Chenji, a military analyst, told The Indian Express that the Anglo-Kuki war book was his third. “I am a military man and have nothing to do with politics. My books as well as papers I have written have been about military operations. The book on the Anglo-Kuki war is similar. It has to do with the military campaign itself – the topography, the weapons used, the training and tactics of the Kukis, the sequence of events, sequence of events, cause of the war, nature of the campaign. It compares the two belligerent armies and analyses them. It is not for or against any community.”
Chenji adds: “My understanding is that the Federation seems to have a problem with calling it a war. But the British colonial forces, as per documents, have called it a war. Some scholars have even called it the First War of Independence, in which the tribals took on the mighty British empire.”
The retired Colonel says he drew heavily from two main resources for his book – the Assam Rifles archives, which include British military literature, and Major General D K Palit’s book Sentinels of the North East. “The Britishers themselves give an account of it, saying that the Kukis inflicted crippling losses on the British Army. The British also decorated their officers with gallantry awards, not given to those quelling a rebellion,” says Chenji.
“There can be no bigger falsity than to claim that the war never took place. The British had underestimated the Kukis… They were highly skilled marksmen and hunters and would melt away into the forest… The Kukis resisted the British armed forces for six months and the British then brought in additional forces from Burma, eventually defeating the Kukis. It was this war that first united the different tribes and sub-tribes which… united for the first time under the Kuki banner,’’ he says.
While in the Army, Chenji led several operations and had stints in the Northeast, including in Mizoram at the height of its insurgent movement in the early ’80s and Nagaland.