A number of constitutional crises have been unfolding in Manipur for the last four years. However, it seems as if it is quite normal not only in the political culture of Manipur but also in Indian politics and constitutionality of the political actions.
In a memorandum submitted to the President of India Ramnath Kovind on March 24, the Congress has claimed that Manipur Governor Dr. Najma Heptulla, in numerous instances, “failed to discharge her constitutional duties and obligations by completely ignoring the law laid down by the Supreme Court as well as established democratic and parliamentary practices”.
The Congress has been pressing for use of all constitutional means open to disqualify 12 MLAs of the BJP-led coalition government in an ‘office of profit’ complaint against them for holding the position of parliamentary secretaries.
The Congress team has also been camping in the national capital since last week of February over the issue pertaining to the disqualification of 12 MLAs of the BJP-led coalition government.
The delegation of the Congress MLAs on March 24 has urged President Ramnath Kovind to either recall or to ensure that the Governor of Manipur performs constitutional duties and obligations as envisaged in the Indian Constitution.
The memorandum pointed out that 12 MLAs belonging to different political parties supporting the BJP-led coalition government in Manipur were appointed as parliamentary secretaries by Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren under Manipur Parliamentary Secretary (Appointment Salary and Allowance and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 2012. The appointees were given not only the status of a minister but also enjoyed financial benefits as well as other perks entitled to a minister.
The Act, however, was declared as unconstitutional for want of legislative competence by the High Court of Manipur after being challenged.
It is reported that while the law relevant to office of profit bars MPs and MLAs from holding a position under the government, the ruling MLAs did not seem to commit any violation as they had held the posts of parliamentary secretaries in the state under an exemption granted by two laws passed over the last decade.
The two laws are the Manipur Parliamentary Secretary (Appointment, Salary and Allowances and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 2012, and the Manipur Parliamentary (Appointment, Salary and Allowances and Miscellaneous Provisions) Repealing Act, 2018. Both the laws no longer exist after the Manipur High Court declared them invalid and unconstitutional in a judgment on 17 September 2020.
Following the Manipur High Court order, the Manipur Congress had approached Governor Najma Heptulla seeking disqualification of the 12 ruling MLAs on account of holding the position of parliamentary secretaries, which qualified as ‘office of profit’ after the HC ruling.
Relying on the court order, Congress MLA DD Thaisii, had submitted an application on October 21, 2020 before the Governor to initiate a proceeding and obtain the opinion of the Election Commission of India (ECI) as contemplated in Article 192 of the Constitution of India before taking any decision. The application was reportedly forwarded to the ECI for obtaining opinion, it said.
It was also reported the Governor had sought the Election Commission’s views on the matter in October last year.
Subsequently, the ECI had already tendered its opinion to the Governor in January but even after two months, the Governor has not taken any decision till date nor was any reason given for not taking the required decision, asserted the memorandum.
In the meantime, the delegation brought to the notice of the President that the tenure of the present Manipur Legislative Assembly will end in 11 months.
The Congress delegation alleged that Constitutional and Parliamentary norms were being flouted in the state by the Governor.
Meanwhile, it is not transparent whether Okram Henry continues as Social Welfare Minister beyond the expiration of grace period of six months or not after he approached the Supreme Court of India on March 24 pleading for a directive to Election Commission of India to conduct a bye-election for 15-Wangkhei AC to avoid losing his ministership. However, the apex court has ordered to put up the matter after the Holi Holidays, 2021.
However, Article 164(4) of the Constitution of India clearly states, “A minister who for any period of six consecutive months is not a member of the Legislature of the State shall at the expiration of that period cease to be a Minister.”
Okram Henry who was elected from 15-Wangkhei Assembly Constituency on Congress ticket in 2017 Assembly election resigned when he faced a disqualification case for cross voting against his original party in favour of the BJP. He then joined the BJP and was made a minister in the BJP-led coalition government.
Henry’s petition had prayed for a direction to the Election Commission to hold bye-elections to the Wangkhei Assembly constituency in accordance with the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951 and also pass appropriate directions that he shall not cease to be a minister as per Article 164 (4) of the Constitution in view of the situation arising out of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the Court neither grant him the relief he was asking for, nor did it reject his prayer, and instead posted the matter to a future date.
In the beginning of the formation of the present BJP-led coalition government, the Congress charged the Governor Dr. Najma Heptulla of siding with the BJP by not inviting the largest single party of the 11th Manipur Legislative Assembly where Congress had 28 members at the time.
For the first time in Indian political history, a Congress MLA Thounaojam Shyamkumar who supported the BJP government was sworn-in as one of Nongthombam Biren’s council of ministers. At last only towards the end of 2020, the Supreme Court order compelled the Speaker of Manipur Legislative Assembly to disqualify him.
It may be noted that the Speaker also did not take action in favour of a number of disqualification petitions by the Congress Party. The Congress then had to go to the courts.
Notably, it is very clear that the political actions which have been unfolding in Manipur since March 15, 2017 are violations of the Xth Schedule of the Indian Constitution – Anti Defection Laws, violation of Articles 164 (1A) and164(4) of the Constitution of India. All these political actions happening in Manipur and its fallout can be considered as constitutional crises.
However, the matter was not highlighted much in the national media, and did not figure as an national issue or constitutional crises. Is it because these wrangling took place only in a small state far from the Capital? Or Indian politics does not find it important enough?
Moreover, it is also pertinent to ask why the All India Congress Committee has not lent its voice to its constituent state body though the matter has dragged on for quite some time now.
Senior Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics