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Suo Moto Cognizance- Elixir or Toxin for the Judicial System of our Country

Suo Moto Cognizance- Elixir or Toxin for the Judicial System of our Country



The Recent actions by the Supreme Court by taking a Suo Moto Cognizance in the case of the viral Manipur Sexual Harassment case was welcomed as a positive measure by various organizations and the citizens of the country. Following the Viral video showing two women being paraded in Manipur while entirely naked, Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud ordered the Central government and the state government to inform the Supreme Court of any actions taken. "If the government doesn't act, the Supreme Court will," the statements and the actions were seen as a panacea towards Judicial Activism.

It was not the first time the Supreme Court exercised the cognizance power. The term Suo Moto was primarily used to refer to the court's contempt proceedings and statutory review power before introducing PILs in India. It derives support from Articles 32 and 226 of the Indian Constitution and is based on the idea of "Epistolary Jurisdiction." It is not required for the victim of a violation of a Fundamental Right to personally approach the court to exercise this jurisdiction; the court may instead take cognizance of the situation and act on its initiative.

Events Leading Up To The Issue

Manipur is one of the North-Eastern states in India that shares its borders with Myanmar. Manipur consists of 53% Meitei population, which is concentrated in the city of Imphal. It also consists of 40% of the Naga and Kuki tribes, which reside in Manipur's hilly areas. The discord in Manipur commenced when the Manipur High Court directed the State Government to consider the Meitei community as Scheduled Tribes. This direction arose from a 2012 case where the Scheduled Tribe Demands Committee of Manipur demanded the court to give them the Scheduled Tribe status. Since the geographical location of Manipur is such that it is sandwiched between Bangladesh and Myanmar, the Meitei community is concerned that due to illegal migration and settlement of people from these two countries, the Meitei community will eventually lose the land and jobs that it currently holds with the progressive hike in percentage of illegal migrants in Manipur. There is an ongoing civil war in Myanmar, triggering unlawful migration of people from Myanmar to India. The worry stems from the fact that, eventually, the demographic of the whole State will change, and the percentage of the Meitei population will decrease with the increase in the population of illegal migrants. If the Meitei people are provided reservations, they can attain education and get jobs. The friction that began with these anxieties has provoked the communities to lash out at each other. However, which community initiated the attack is unclear due to the absence of a police report.

In February, in Churachandpur and the other two districts, the government started removing encroachment in the forest areas. Similarly, on April 11, three churches were declared illegal and razed. On April 20, the Manipur High Court suggested to the State Government that the Meitei community be listed in the Scheduled Tribe list. Due to these three things, people of both the Kuki and Naga tribes were outraged. On April 28, Chief Minister Biren Singh was to come to the Churachandpur district to open an open gym. The protesters had set fire to this gym a day earlier, on April 27, 2023.

After this, Article 144 was imposed for five days. People were told not to protest or gather in large groups. Curfew was imposed in 8 districts of Manipur. After this, on May 3 2023, the All Tribal Student's Union, Manipur, organized the Tribal Solidarity March. More than 60,000 people participated in this rally. A rumour spread among the people protesting in Churachandpur that the people belonging to the Meitei community had set fire to one of their villages. Out of rage, they started to set fire to the surrounding Meitei settlements. Clashes started between the Meitei community and the tribal people following this. Videos of civilians walking with AK-47 on the streets went viral. Whether these videos are real or fake is not yet to be known.

On May 4, 2023, the violence spread to different parts of Manipur. Shops were set ablaze, and clashes between people and the police began to increase, which caused the State Government to depend on the army's help. Internet was subsequently suspended in multiple places. On May 4 2023, two women from the Kuki tribe, one in her 20s and the other in her 40s, were stripped and paraded naked in the streets by men from the Meitei tribe. The video of the women being paraded and molested repeatedly by the men went viral on social media by July 19. The video caused widespread horror and outrage across the country. The mob killed the younger victim's father and teenage brother while they attempted to rescue the victim. The incident was reported from Kangpokpi district of Manipur. The police complaint filed by the relative of one of the women states that one of them was gang-raped. It also states that another woman was stripped and paraded naked, who does not appear in the viral video on social media. The government has subsequently asked all social media platforms to take down the video. The police have arrested seven accused persons in the case and are on the hunt for the rest of the persons involved in the assault.

 The Chief Justice of India, Hon'ble Justice DY Chandrachud, stated that the Supreme Court will intervene if the government does not act. The incident also forced the Prime Minister, who had been silent for about 80 days since the incident, to address the issue. The Chief Minister of Manipur, Biren Singh, defended the internet ban in the State, stating that it was due to several reported incidents in various parts of the State. The CBI has taken over the FIR registered by the Manipur Police as its case. In a recent affidavit filed before the Supreme Court of India, the Union Government has requested to transfer the case out of Manipur to any other State. The Centre has also sought the completion of the chargesheet. By July 20, 2023, the Supreme Court had taken suo motu cognizance of the case and directed the State to inform the steps taken regarding the case. 

Not Just a Mute Spectator- The Background of Suo Moto Cognizance in Lights of Judicial Activism

Following India's internal emergency between 1975 and 1977, the Constitutional Courts' concept of fundamental rights transformed. The scope of fundamental rights has dramatically increased and been accepted. This widened focus has clarified the idea of "Public Interest Litigation," or PIL; as a result, the Locus standi rule was loosened.

Justice P.N. Bhagwati articulated the notion of PIL in the case of S. P. Gupta v. Union of India (First Judges Case) AIR 1982, SC 149. According to it, if an individual or group of individuals has experienced a legal wrong or injury but is unable to seek redress in court due to poverty, helplessness, or economic disadvantages, a member of the public may file an application on their behalf in the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution and in the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution.

Sunil Batra's petition was one of the first recognized letter petitions. He was a prisoner who complained in writing to Judge Krishna Iyer about the severe assault on one of his fellow inmates. The Supreme Court took cognizance of the letter, which the Apex Court had already treated as a PIL. It took Suo Motu cognizance of Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration and Ors. (1978) 4 SCC 409 is the same case. The Supreme Court issued guidelines to be followed by the jails to administer prison justice.

In court on its Own Motion v. Union of India and Ors suo motu writ petition (civil) no. 284 of 2012, the Supreme Court took Suo Moto notice of certain newspapers that reported 67 deaths of the pilgrims who went on Amarnath yatra. The court found that most deaths were due to cardiac arrests and other reasons. The court appropriately handled this as a severe subject of lack of medical facilities in the Public interest. In District Co-operative Bank Ltd. Vs Badri Ram and Ors August 21 2002, the Allahabad High Court decided this case and closed it, but specific provisions under it were not brought to the judge's notice. Therefore, the court Suo Moto initiated review proceedings in this case.

Judicial Adventurism: Real Manifestation of Judicial Abdication

A constitution that guarantees individual Fundamental Rights divides power between the union and the states and defines explicitly and delimits the rights and duties of every instrument of the State, including the parliament, gives the judiciary a substantial role, but Judicial Review is "supervisory" in nature, not "corrective."

A few glaring examples of judicial overreach include the ban on Deepavali firecrackers citing rising pollution and environmental protection, the ban on the use of private vehicles after 10 or 15 years, the monitoring of police investigations, the denial of the executive any role in the appointment of judges by instituting a collegium, which is said to be an extra-constitutional body, the invalidation of the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act, and the ban on the sale of alcohol at retail outlets within 500 meters of any National or State Highway.

The notion of the separation of powers, as a Basic Structure of our Constitution, is questioned by judicial overreach. Instead of replacing administrative orders with judicial ones, the courts should intervene to compel the authorities to take action and issue executive orders.

The Preeminence of "Public Interest"; Importance of Suo Moto Cognizance by the Judiciary

Rightly Quoted by W. Clement Stone, "To Every disadvantage, there is a corresponding Advantage". The Suo Moto Power, despite it being witnessed as an intervention, has opened the gates of the judiciary even to those who did not have any means to approach it. The idea of Public Interest at large is fulfilled since it helps maintain the balance of power by exercising Checks and Balances, which might sometimes seem like intervention.

The importance of the suo moto power of the Supreme Court lies in its ability to uphold the rule of law, provide access to justice, and act as the guardian of the fundamental rights of citizens, even in cases where individuals or authorities may not have approached the court seeking relief. This power allows the court to step in and address pressing issues that may have been overlooked or neglected, ensuring that justice is served and constitutional principles are upheld.

In Common Cause v. Union of India (2018), the Supreme Court took suo moto cognizance of the alarming increase in deaths of manual scavengers due to hazardous working conditions. The court issued several directives to the government to ensure the rehabilitation of manual scavengers and to take measures to prevent further deaths. Similarly, in Re: Alarming Rise in the Number of Reported Child Rape Incidents (2019), the Supreme Court, in this suo moto case, took note of the rising cases of child sexual abuse and rape across the country. It issued guidelines to states and union territories for establishing dedicated child-friendly courts and fast-track disposal of such cases.

These instances show how the Supreme Court's suo moto power can be crucial in resolving pressing problems that demand prompt attention and intervention. It exemplifies the court's dedication to upholding individuals' rights, guaranteeing accountability, and delivering justice even when no traditional legal process is involved. Second, the court's suo moto authority enables it to handle critical public matters that might not otherwise come to its attention. This is crucial because it allows the court to protect the rule of law and ensure that the government operates in the citizens' best interests.


The public interest litigation has widened the scope of the judiciary's power to intervene in urgent matters concerning public interest. Advocate Arif Khan Makki says, "The rationale behind the suo moto actions of the High Court and Supreme Court is the desire to deliver justice to everyone, even to the people who might not be able to afford it."

Disclaimer: Kindly note that the views and opinions expressed are of the author(s), not Law Colloquy.