Manipur journalist's arrest shows how National Security Act is being misused to silence voices against State
Manipur, the easternmost Indian border state, plagued by unemployment and armed conflict, is fondly referred to as a ‘paradise’ in journalistic circles.
Manipur, the easternmost Indian border state, plagued by unemployment and armed conflict, is fondly referred to as a ‘paradise’ in journalistic circles for the huge varieties and hard-hitting news emerging from it. Thanks to the intolerance shown by the BJP-led state government, this sobriquet is about to become 'paradise in peril'.
Manipur government has invoked provisions of a preventive detention law meant to safeguard national security and maintenance of public order to detain a local journalist for criticising the government in his Facebook post using expletives.
Kishorechandra Wangkhem, a 39-year-old TV news and current affairs anchor, was recently slapped with the National Security Act and punished with detention for 12 months, the maximum period of detention permissible under the preventive Act for uploading a video post. He had accused Chief Minister N Biren Singh of being a puppet of the Union government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
"The case is promising to be a historic one on the infringement of the rights of a common citizen, both in Indian context as well as in the context of Manipur," said Chongtham Victor, the legal counsel of the journalist, who has challenged his client’s detention, filing a petition under habeas corpus on Tuesday.
"We strongly feel that the freedom of speech and expression, guaranteed by Article 19, Clause 1 of the Indian Constitution, has been totally violated," asserted the advocate who went on to say, "the facts of case clearly indicate as such."
Wangkhem was arrested for uploading a video post on Facebook in which he condemned the BJP-led state government for allegedly linking the role of the Rani of Jhansi in the freedom movement of Manipur in a state-organised commemoration function for the Rani. In the video post, Wangkhem dared the state government to arrest him for opposing the function and used expletives against the BJP-led government, chief minister, prime minster and the RSS.
He was detained under Sections 294 and 500 of the IPC and Section 124 A, which deals with sedition. However, on 25 November, the Chief Judicial Magistrate before whom the arrested journalist was produced released him on bail on the ground that his words were “a mere expression of an opinion against the public conduct of a public figure in street language.”
“It does not appear to me as an act which is intended to create enmity between different groups of people community, sections etc nor does it appear to be one which attempts to bring hatred, contempt, dissatisfaction against the government of India or of the state. It is mere expression of opinion against the prime minister and chief minister of Manipur which cannot be equated with an attack to invite people to violence against the government of India or Manipur to topple it,” stated the Magistrate’s order.
Wangkhem was re-arrested by the police the very next day and detained under the NSA. Even as he continues to be lodged at Manipur’s Sajiwa central jail, the state government is challenging in court the bail order granted to him by the lower court. On the other side, the advisory board set up under Section 9 of the NSA Act to look into the veracity of the charges made against the journalist met on 11 December and approved his detention under the NSA after conducting hearings on the matter.
The journalist's wife Ranjita Elangbam, who is running pillar to post to get justice in her husband’s case, said she is shocked to experience the unfolding vindictive events surrounding her husband’s harmless but abusive Facebook post.
"I’m really shocked. Why NSA? I fail to understand. I’m not denying that he used certain abusive language but laws exist to tackle such issues. I would have appreciated it if they had taken recourse on that option. But after the court released him on bail, saying that the ‘street language’ he used is not seditious as charged, in less than 24 hours, the police came in civil clothes and took him away, saying the SP would like to speak with him."
"They did not issue any formal documents or anything like that. Subsequently, they detained him under NSA. This occurrence is truly shocking and saddening to experience first hand," said an emotional Ranjita, who is at a loss of words in giving a comforting answer to her five-year-old daughter’s constant inquiry of her father’s whereabouts. Beside her daughter, Ranjita has to look after their one-year-old daughter.
While it is a fact that Wangkhem’s controversial post had generously used expletives and was published on a non-journalistic platform to express his criticism of the government, critics are of the opinion that NSA detention for insulting a government in a foul language is too harsh. Former chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice Markandey Katju, is one of the most vocal.
“It is the essence of democracy that people have the right to criticise the government and ministers, for what else is democracy but rule by the people? The chief minister of Manipur is behaving like a little dictator,” wrote Katju, a former judge of the Supreme Court, in his letter petition to the Chief Justice of the Manipur High Court. He further highlighted in his opinion: “A flagrant violation of Article 19(1)(a) has taken place in the state of Manipur by the government of Manipur by detaining a journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem under the National Security Act, for criticising the Manipur government and its Chief Minister.”
“My Lord,” Katju continued, “the judiciary is the protector and guardian of the fundamental rights of the people. You have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution. Please don’t just ignore this flagrant violation of the rights of the people.”
Another legal expert, Kameshwar Singh, while offering his view on the case, said, "This man has not done anything other than insult the government using derogatory language. He has not made incendiary speech saying we should revolt or kill people."
Manipur High Court advocate Soraisam Chitaranjan Singh, while explaining what NSA is, said that NSA is a 1980 Act which falls under traditional preventive detention laws. The idea behind this kind of law is that if there is a danger to the national security of country, there should an act to tackle such dangers. The act, which was passed during Indira Gandhi’s regime, empowers the central as well as the state government to detain a person to prevent him/her from acting in any manner prejudicial to the security of India, the relations of India with foreign countries, the maintenance of public order, or the maintenance of supplies of essential services to a particular community.
The lawyer further asserted that the act doesn’t give the government the authority can go and arrest anyone for anything and put him or her under preventive detention.
"Now, a random journalist, who does not even have much of an influence, nor a large number of followers; a journalist criticising a government, no matter how derogatory his language is, cannot in anyway fall within these things. If you have anyone insulting the government and that is equivalent to damaging the defence of India, the security of India and the maintenance of public order, this goes against the rule of law. The courts have on multiple occasions ruled that when you talk about such dangers to public order and incitement of these things, you need to have some actual incitement. When it comes to sedition, for instance, courts always say that you have to first show some public disorder that has actually happened as a result of the speech," said Chitaranjan.
"NSA is a necessary evil for the sake of national security. It is akin to the old Rowlatt Act, enforced by the British in 1919 where the saying goes there is no need for a lawyer, there is no appeal and no argument neither. Similarly, when someone is booked under NSA, the person in question does not have the right to have a lawyer with him or her when they are being taken away nor does he have the right to appeal against the decision. Even the right to be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours of the arrest or detained is denied. Here, none of that applies," he added.
Expressing her anguish, Ranjita said, "How he poses a threat to the state, I fail to comprehend. After his Facebook post, there has not been any social crime, communal violence or any ill effects. It was just criticism and nothing else. But the police are saying he is working under somebody’s pressure; he is working for some proscribed organisation. They are even trying to force us to admit that we’ve received money for the post. This is how we’re being put under pressure. We’re really in a dark spot."
While Indian Journalist’s Union condemned Wangkhem’s detention under NSA and has been demanding his immediate release, the apex body of working journalists of Manipur, the All Manipur Working Journalist’s Union, AMWJU, has so far chose to remain a mute spectator, saying that Wangkhem “acted in utter disregard of the resolution adopted by the AMWJU in August this year, which clearly stated that any person working in a media house of Manipur as journalist/non journalist must face his/her own consequences of posting/uploading derogatory, defamatory, illegal, unconstitutional, etc comment/video on social media that is not connected with the profession of journalism in whatsoever manner, and that AMWJU will not be responsible for it at all.”
AMWJU’s press statement further said it is “compelled to take this resolution as a few so-called journalists including Kishorechandra himself were blatantly misusing social media by posting abusive and offensive comments against some people, political parties, organisations and their leaders in a very personal manner in the name of freedom of press and what not, that needed to be controlled and would create a lot of disturbances, if left unchecked."
When contacted, Brozendro Ningomba, interim president of AMWJU, reiterated that "there is no change in AMWJU’s stand and it will stick to its August resolution." When asked whether the Union does not feel it is time for it to step in and voice its concern when the government slapped NSA on the journalist for his personal criticism of the government, Ningomba, who is also the editor-in-chief of IS TV (the local TV channel for which Wangkhem used to work as anchor), responded saying, "This is a legal matter which has to be fought legally by the concerned individual. AMWJU has nothing to do with it. We cannot be protesting and demand his release as it would amount to acting against our own stated stand. This is how we understand. We’ve nothing to do with it. It has to be fought legally by his family along with his supporters and sympathisers. This is AMWJU’s stand."
Meanwhile, a retired IAS officer who is currently a working journalist and a member of AMWJU, RK Nimai is of the view that the "government is making a non-issue into an issue. Better option for the government is to release him unconditionally."
Despite AMWJU’s indifferent attitude, students’ bodies like the Manipur Students Association, Manipur Muslim Students Union and the All Manipur Students Union have come out opposing Wangkhem’s detention under NSA.
Now, both cases — the one challenging the grant of bail to Wangkhem and the other challenging his detention under NSA — are due to come up before the High Court of Manipur on 14 January and 2 February respectively. One has to wait to see how things pan out and whether justice is delivered to common citizens.
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