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Rule of Law Continues to be Officially Trifled in Manipur, and This Can Only Spell Peril for the Future of the State

Manipur’s descent into lawlessness is now almost complete. No longer is this about those challenging the state and its institutions, but precisely of the behaviours of those who are entrusted to be the law’s custodians. This became quite evident in the proceedings inside the Manipur State Assembly during and after the “so called” confidence vote moved by the ruling coalition, ostensibly to subvert a demand for a no confidence motion by the opposition. Of course, a “confidence vote” and a no “confidence vote” are one and the same thing, except for semantics and the less likelihoods of discussions on the performance of the government. Both are meant to test if the government o the day still enjoys majority support in the Assembly. If the motion is moved by the ruling it is the former and if it is moved by the opposition it is the latter. As a convention, if notices are received from both the ruling and opposition on the matter, the ruling’s notice is given priority regardless of chronology, which is what happened in the recent case. So far so good, but what happened thereafter is simply atrocious. On one hand the basic character of Manipur politics, marked by a singular lack of loyalty to ideology, and determined solely by the lure of the spoils of power, became stark. On the other, the state’s highest institution of democracy, the Manipur Legislative Assembly, where laws suitable for the state in tackling emergent situations, as well as policies to be adopted for effective governance, are to be forged through debates between the treasury and the opposition benches, was subjected to further debasement.
The description of democracy as rule by debate is what is being allowed to go up in smokes. The state Assembly, of which all the MLAs, ruling and opposition, representing all the different nooks and corners of the state are members, by its very composition and structure, represents the entire voice of the people of the state. Only honest debates here can sanctify government policies to have the mandate of voice of the entire state. This is also precisely why the Constitution makes it mandatory for Parliament and Assemblies to convene at least once every six months. If any government develops the hubris that since they are in the majority and in power, they are the sole arbitrator of state policies, let it be remembered those in the opposition represent another huge section of the population, and it is the voice of this section of the population which would be missing in the state’s policy initiatives. Such arrogance without a question undermines democracy. So why was the recently concluded monsoon session of the Assembly scheduled only for a single day. As the COVID crisis rages, there ought to have been at least a day kept in reserve to thrash out the COVID challenge itself. We all know there have been several false steps in this battle, though probably unintended. As for instance the state clearly misjudged the likely span of the crisis, leading to superfluous utilisation of state resources and energy at the very start, to unnecessarily fatigue the population and state alike before time. All these could have been thrashed out meaningfully, with inputs from all constituencies through their MLAs, ruling and opposition alike. It is difficult to imagine why anybody can forget democracy is considered unique precisely because it puts a premium on rule by debate. There should also have been time slotted to discuss how Manipur can accommodate a Naga peace settlement amicably without accentuating the states already unenviable ethnic frictions, but also without jeopardising the peace process. This issue too was ignored and left to be tackled in the government’s characteristic way of knee-jerk response to every challenge.
Then there is the question of the way the Speaker conducted the trust vote. For reasons not difficult to guess, but definitely seen as untenable by jurists and legal experts, the Speaker decided on a voice vote to settle the onerous issue of whether the BJP led coalition government still enjoyed majority support in the Assembly. How can such a crucial decision be based on which of the chorus, one saying “Aye” and the other “Nay”, was louder. It is only common sense such a judgement can never be accurate, especially if 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 was important for the Congress did issue a whip on its legislators to vote as per the party’s decision, suspecting there were fifth columnists and trojan horses within their rank. Since live telecast of the session was disallowed for whatever the reason, we will not be able to confirm for sure, but the report is the Congress did ask for a division vote after the voice vote and this was refused. Leaked mobile videos however indicate this was actually so.
What then is the prescribed way to deal requests for division vote after a voice vote? The “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 obliged to concede to such demands. This being so, there are two ways of looking at the matter. One is to see if there have been precedents in India. Interestingly, “Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business” of the Lok Sabha has a section on this. Rule 367 clearly mentions that if even a single member challenges the decision by a voice vote, the Speaker is obliged to hold a division vote. However, even if the Speaker thinks such a resort is irrelevant because one side is overwhelmingly in the majority, he is still obliged to have all “Aye” and “Nay” sayers stand up in turn and do a headcount without going through the more cumbersome exercise of a division vote. In other words, the norm is for a division vote to be allowed. If precedents in India were not available, the practice is also to look for examples in how British Parliament, on which the Indian Parliamentary system was modelled, tackles the issue. Precedents from parliaments of other Commonwealth countries which follow the same system is also important. In these countries, it is known, the voice vote is already disused except in cases of lightly contested matters where the need was just to achieve a consensus. Experts indeed have now come out in public that in the Manipur Assembly confidence vote on August 10, voice vote should not have been the resort at all, but if it was used, once challenged, a division vote should have been conceded to. For all of us in the state who have a stake in the politics of the land, witnessing these developments and more in recent times in Manipur, is nothing less than despairing. This complete disregard for rule of law at this level will only further erode public esteem in the very idea of rule of law, and this can be predicted to become a cancer in this sensitive state, already prone to problems of severe law and order breaches.