The Supreme Court in Delhi on Monday criticised police in Manipur over a delay in filing an initial report on a “horrific” incident in which two women were stripped, paraded and sexually assaulted by a mob.
Chief Justice of India Dhananjay Chandrachud was hearing a batch of petitions, including one by the two women, relating to the incident in a state that has been in the grip of ethnic violence since May 3.
At least 140 people have been killed in clashes between the predominantly Hindu Meitei community and largely Christian Kuki tribes over a government proposal to give the former group the same special status as the latter.
Several incidents of sexual violence against women have been reported in the state but the mob attack on three women from the same family as they fled shook the nation after footage went viral, forcing the Supreme Court to intervene.
The attack took place on May 4 and an official police report filing, known as a "first information report", or FIR, was not registered until May 18. A video went viral on June 19, Kapil Sibal, the lawyer representing the victims, told a court hearing.
The Supreme Court also came down heavily on the state and federal governments – each ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party – over the delayed action.
“What stood in the way of the police registering the FIR immediately on May 4?" Justice Chandrachud asked the Solicitor General of India, Tushar Mehta.
Justice Chandrachud said the “horrific” incident was an act of “systematic violence”.
“In such a case, is it not important that you should have a specialised team?" he said. "There is a need in the state of Manipur to have a healing touch, because the violence is continuing unabated."
He raised six questions – including on the nature of the 6,000 police cases registered in connection with the current wave of violence, and the number of cases dealing with crimes against women versus the number of arrests made – and sought a response from the government within 24 hours.
The hearing on the petitions is likely to resume on Tuesday.
The Chief Justice also condemned lawyer Bansuri Swaraj, who appeared as an intervener to assist the court, after she had compared the May incident with cases of sexual assault on women in other states such as West Bengal, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh – all ruled by opposition parties.
“Undoubtedly there are crimes against women all over the country,” Justice Chandrachud said. "We are, however, dealing with something of unprecedented magnitude – namely, crimes and perpetuation of violence against women in a situation of communal or sectarian strife of a nature which is taking place in Manipur.
“You cannot excuse what is taking place in one part of the country, like Manipur, on the grounds that similar crimes are happening in other parts, too. The question is, how do we deal with Manipur?”