‘Every Media House Is Directly Or Indirectly Under The Govt’

11 Dec 2020 6 min read  Share

Journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem has been jailed thrice in the last two years, charged with sedition twice, and spent 133 days in prison in preventive detention under the National Security Act, all for Facebook posts critical of the current Manipur government. He’s just been released on bail on the orders of a local court—again.

Kishorchandra with his wife Ranjita, daughters, and newborn son.
mphal journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem, 40, has been jailed thrice in the past two years. The second time, in November 2018, he was charged with sedition, and spent 133 days in jail after being arrested for an abusive rant on Facebook directed against Chief Minister N. Biren Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who ironically is a former journalist himself. After his initial arrest, Kishorchandra had been freed by a local court which found his post to be “mere expression of opinion against the public conduct of a public figure in street language”, and not worthy of the charge of sedition, but the government seemed determined not to let him off. The National Security Act, 1980 was invoked, and Kishorchandra was held under preventive detention. He lost his job at the local channel where he then worked, ISTV Network. While media bodies around India and the world issued statements (here and here) in his support, the local journalists association disowned him.

Now he’s just out of jail again. This time, he spent more than three months in prison for quoting and commenting on an Instagram war between the two wives of a local minister, Okram Henry Singh, which went viral in Imphal social media. The wife who made the original disparaging comment faced no consequences, but Kishorchandra was arrested on charges including sedition. The minister is a nephew of former Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh of the Congress, and his involvement in a drugs case was a poll issue for the BJP in the last assembly elections in Manipur in 2017. This August, Henry joined the BJP. He is now a minister but will have to win a bypoll soon to retain his ministry.

The politics in Manipur, meanwhile, remains fraught. Biren Singh’s government has faced internal rebellions from allies and from disgruntled leaders within the BJP, but he has managed to cling on with the backing of the party’s leaders in Delhi, whom he has kept in good humour, and defections from the Congress, the party he left less than six months before the 2017 assembly polls. However, broader factors, such as the Naga peace talks and associated tensions, the alleged saffronisation of institutions in Manipur, and illegal migration from Myanmar, remain emotive issues. The combination of a leadership highly sensitive to media and social media criticism, and the insecurities that plague an unstable government, have contributed to landing Kishorchandra in jail time and again.

He spoke to us the day after getting out of his most recent stint in jail on 8 December 2020. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What exactly were you arrested for this time?

A: I saw some Instagram posts where the second, unofficial wife of a minister, O. Henry Singh from Wangkheia constituency where there is a bypoll scheduled to be heldhad made some insulting remarks about the first, real wife, including some things about her community. She happens to be a friend of mine. Out of sympathy for her I posted on Facebook, quoting the Instagram post of the second wife, and asking whether you can use this kind of language in public. The second wife is from my community, the Meitei. The first wife is from a local tribal community, the Maram. The Maram Women’s Union took objection to my post. My comment was misinterpreted. They filed a police complaint. My friend (the first wife) spoke to them but the case had already been registered.

How long were you in lock-up and jail?

A: From 29 September to 3 October, I was in lock-up. Then I was shifted to judicial custody and sent to jail. I was released on 8 December.

What sections were you charged under?

A: 124A of the Indian Penal Code. That’s sedition. And also 153A, which is promoting enmity between groups, and 500, which is defamation, and the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.

How is this matter related to sedition?

A: Haha. They just wanted to lock me up for some time. I speak openly and I say what I think is not right, I talk about how voices are being muzzled. The authorities don’t like that. I have been sent to jail thrice so far...but I am prepared to go again. There are so many issues here... Citizenship Amendment Act, Inner Line Permit, the Naga peace accord. I point out the issues. They don’t like that.

When were you arrested first? And why?

A: On 9 August 2018. I was detained for a Facebook post over removing the Manipur University vice-chancellor Adya Prasad Pandey who was an RSS man. Students and teachers were protesting and demanding his removal. I had said some people are trying to malign the protests, but they are an expression of people’s sentiments. They released me on 13 August.

Then on 20 November, there was a commemoration function here of the Rani of Jhansi’s anniversary by the Chief Minister. I was arrested for a Facebook Live I did about it. I said yes, I understand that she was a freedom fighter for India, but at that point when she fought, Manipur was not a part of India. How about commemorating Manipuris who fought for freedom? For that I was detained for six days under charges of sedition. I got bail from the court, but was re-arrested under the National Security Act (which allows for preventive detention for up to one year). I was finally released on 10 April 2019 after 133 days.

What happened to those cases?

A: All the cases are still there except the NSA case which was quashed.

Can’t you sue the officials involved for blatant misuse of provisions of law?

A: This time I am contemplating it. I spoke to my counsel after getting out yesterday. I asked what can I do? I am being unnecessarily harassed again and again.

Is there some personal issue between you and Chief Minister Biren Singh?

A: He’s the CM, so credit or blame will naturally go to him. It’s nothing personal from my side. But I think he has selectively targeted me.

What was the role of the local media fraternity in Manipur? Why were they silent?

A: I don’t have any hard feelings about my media fraternity. I understand their compulsions. Every media house here is directly or indirectly under the government. They can’t say anything against the government. It’s their wisdom, their decision.

Where are you working now? Can you tell me a little bit about your journalism career?

A: I am not a professionally trained journalist. It happened by chance that I came into journalism. I started with a local channel, Impact TV, as a newsreader first. I was also interested in editing so I started assisting the desk. I became a sub editor but continued to host shows and read the news. Then in 2017, I joined another local channel, ISTV Network, as a desk editor. I was hosting debates and reading the news there as well. I also did some reporting. I was working there when I got detained under NSA. After coming out I joined another local TV channel. Now recently I have joined a new organisation, The Frontier Manipur.

Is there any message you want to share?

A: Yes, that now is not the time to just sit and watch. We in Manipur are being given step-motherly treatment in all aspects. I am not saying we should protest or fight but we definitely should speak up. And my message to the authorities is that they should not take criticism so personally. A government coming down to this level and fighting with an individual like me over Facebook posts is a shame.

Something should also be done about the sedition law. It is too draconian. Certain changes are required. I have two sedition charges against me, and once I was charged under NSA, all for FB posts. The government is misusing its powers to suppress voices it doesn’t like.

(Samrat Choudhury is a columnist and author based in Kolkata.)