Lockdown Spurs Manipur Govt's War On Free Speech

27 Apr 2020 11 min read  Share

A state government uses India’s 150-year-old sedition law and a law to address natural disasters to curb even the mildest of online criticism about its handling of the Covid-19 outbreak. How social-media posts are leading to time in jail, with 13 cases filed just in April

Kishorchandra Wangkhem when he was released by the high court after more than a year in detention/FILE PHOTO

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Imphal: “Can someone tell me the name of our constituency’s MLA? I have forgotten his name although I remember the names of the other MLAs,” Jotin Meitei Wakambam, a 26-year-old teacher, wrote on his Facebook page on 11 April 2020. The post, aimed at MLA Ksh Biren Singh who defected to the BJP earlier this year and who had gone missing during the distribution of food supplies, was accompanied by an emoji of ‘feeling confused’.

On 14 April, the 20th day of the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, Jotin found himself at the police station at Lamlai, charged with sedition, or waging war against the State. He had been picked from his residence in Pungdongbam village in Manipur’s East Imphal district. A day later, five more from his village, including a minor, were detained.

The six were charged with sedition (section 124A of the Indian Penal Code), sale of defamatory content (502) and common intention (34). Their crime? Commenting on and “liking” Jotin’s post.

The chief judicial magistrate (CJM) of the Imphal East District court wasn’t buying the police’s case and said the Facebook post did not invite charges of sedition. The men were released on 16 April after having spent more than 48 hours in custody.

Article14 made several attempts to reach Wakambam and his family but they were not available for comment.

On the face of it, said Rabi Khan, a criminal lawyer, the social media post does not offend or insult the government but merely poses a question. “His post shows that the concerned MLA of the constituency was missing in action either in distributing food items or looking into the grievances of the people during the lockdown,” he told Article14.

Manipur has so far reported only two positive cases of Covid-19. Both have recovered, and their contacts have been traced and tested negative for the virus.

However, the lockdown has led to a shortage of essential commodities particularly in the remote hill districts. Under the National Food Security Act, 2013, the state is required to make these available. Rather than address these urgent concerns, the government has, since 1 April, filed 13 cases, ranging from sedition to a provision of the National Disaster Management Act (NDMA), 2005, against those who used social or print media to express their unhappiness over the government.

On 12 April, a social activist in Senapati district was booked under the NDMA for a Facebook post that referred to a report filed by him on a shortage of essential items for children in shelter homes. Dr. Robin Rongmei, who runs Compassion Children Ministries in Senapati, said he was informed about his arrest while he was celebrating Easter with his family.

“Two days before, I had submitted a video report on the situation at my children’s home for essential items,” said Rongmei. “There has been no assistance from the district administration and the children were suffering.”

A clip of the video was then shared by the convenor of the Manipur Alliance for Child Rights, a non-profit, on his Facebook profile and this is what landed Rongmei at the Senapati police station. He alleged that the police neither shared a copy of the first information report (FIR) nor produced an arrest memo but let him go after he signed a bond.

M Pradip Singh, Superintendent of Police of Senapati district, confirmed to Article14 that a case has been registered against Rongmei. Asked about the specific allegations mentioned in the FIR, lodged on the complaint filed by the district magistrate, he said it was for “spreading fake information”.

No Room For Dissent

Ever since the state was locked down, the government’s management of essential services, such as rice distribution, has been criticised by civil society bodies and citizens.

But there appears to be no room or tolerance for criticism.

The now former deputy minister, Joykumar Yumnam, a member of the ruling coalition National People’s Party (NPP), was stripped off his portfolios on 9 April after he called Chief Minister N Biren Singh’s assurance on food security during the lockdown, ‘hogwash’ and ‘gibberish’.

Just days earlier, his son, Yumnam Devajit Singh, had been booked under NDMA for ‘false warning’ after a voice message allegedly recorded by Devajit had gone viral on WhatsApp. The 5 April recording warned that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal to people to switch off lights and light candles on that day at 9 pm for nine minutes would lead to ‘surge loads in all power grids’. Such a surge would ‘lead to nuclear-like explosion in India [sic]’.

Joykumar Yumnam has been guarded in response to his demotion by the chief minister but said his NPP party has had ‘internal discussions’. “We showed our anger and dissent but are waiting for the final decision,” he said. “When we take the decision, all four of us (NPP ministers) will be together.”

A senior BJP leader in the state, who did not want to be named, told Article14 that several party leaders have tried to dissuade the BJP chief ministerironically, a former editor of a vernacular daily who was in 2000 jailed for sedition by the then Congress government from filing cases against online dissenters. “The problem is he’s too active on social media. While he gets a lot of praise as well, he’s too sensitive to any criticism that appears online” said the leader.

The list of arrests and detentions is long.

On 1 April, human rights activists Takhenchang Shadishkanta and Khangjrakpam Phajaton Mangang were picked up allegedly without an arrest memo and subsequently slapped with charges under the NDMA.

Their organisation, Youth Forum for Protection of Human Rights, released a statement opposing the government’s plans to build a quarantine centre on a paddy field located on the outskirts of the capital city, Imphal. As an alternative, they suggested an unused airstrip, which comes under defence land. They were released on bail the next day after paying a surety of Rs 30,000 each.

Responding to the spate of arrests Laifungbam Debabrata Roy, a public health physician and president of the Centre for Organisation, Research and Education, took to Facebook to ask chief minister Biren Singh to, “Desist from wasting state resources, time and personnel in carrying out any personal and political agenda or vendetta at this time of crisis.” Next day, he was picked up by the police for his post.

Although he had to spend a night in custody, no charges were pressed against Roy after he deleted his post and apologised in a letter to the chief minister.

Konsam Victor Singh, who was picked up on 1 April for a critical post on Facebook, was also let off after a night in the lockup and an apology posted on Facebook. He had asked, two days earlier, on his Facebook post whether anyone knew how much Chief Minister Biren Singh had contributed to the CM’s Covid-19 relief fund.

The complaints have been filed suo moto by the police. Victor said he was told by police officials that the order had come from the chief minister himself. “After spending a night in custody, the police told me that they would release me on the condition that I delete the post and apologise on social media,” he told Article14.

Another complaint was registered on 3 April against members of the Popular Front of India under section 51 of NDMA over a press communique published in the Manipur daily Pandam, which alleged, “The nationwide lockdown to prevent spread of Covid-19, which has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, was unplanned and [done] in order to divert its failure, has been victimising Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Nizamuddin Markaz, New Delhi.”

K Meghachandra Singh, the superintendent of police (Imphal West), who is the complainant, told Article14 that the FIR was registered against two members for obstructing government employees from discharging their duty. No arrests have been made so far.

A research scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Mohammad Chingiz Khan was on 8 April booked by Mayang Imphal police station (Imphal West) on charges of sedition, promoting communal disharmony, public mischief and criminal conspiracy. The row was over an article, ‘A political ploy to drive out the Muslims’ published in the local Meeteilon daily, Ichel Express on 6 April. The article, co-authored by Chingiz and Mohammad Imtiyaj Khan, an associate professor at Gauhati University, was translated from an English version, titled ‘Pangals (Muslims) victim of manufactured insecurity’, which first appeared in The Pioneer.

According to advocate Rabi Khan, when the police turned up to arrest Chingiz from his residence at 3 am on 8 April and could not find him, they picked up his father instead. Chingiz then surrendered and was remanded to police custody. He was released on bail on 16 April. Despite several attempts, Article14 could not reach him for a comment.

These days, Khan said, action is taken against anyone who posts or writes anything against the ruling government or their supporters. “This is the situation we’re living in since the BJP came to power in 2017,” he said.

Clockwise from bottom left: Chingiz Khan, student activist Veewon Thokchom and professor Imtiyaj Khan were all booked by the state for speaking up.

Not Every Magistrate Sees Sedition in Facebook Posts

For Kishorchandra Wangkhem, a journalist who spent more than a year in prison under the National Security Act (NSA) of 1980 until his release in April 2019, the spate of arbitrary arrests hardly comes as a surprise.

In November 2018, he was first arrested for sedition when he posted a video criticising Chief Minister Biren Singh and BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav for celebrating the birth anniversary of Rani Laxmibai in the state.

The charges were quashed by the CJM of Imphal West who noted, “The government, especially its functionary like the prime minister or chief minister cannot be so sensitive as to take offence upon expression of opinion by its citizen which may be given very nicely by using proper words or indecently by using some vulgar terms.”

But a day after his release, Wangkhem was detained again, this time under the NSA.

This time the district magistrate of West Manipur noted that the detention was, “In view of his prejudicial activities in the proximate past and that therefore, he should be prevented from commission of such prejudicial activities through an alternative preventive measure.”

A few magistrates have expressed unhappiness about the overreach. Hearing of the arrest of student activist Veewon Thokchom, Ningthoujam Lanleima,the CJM of Imphal East noted that a Facebook post, “cannot be stated to bring into hatred or contempt, or excite or attempt to excite dissatisfaction towards the government established by law.”

Thokchom had been arrested in February 2019 from New Delhi after a case of sedition was registered against him at Lamlai police station for his post stating, among other things, “Manipur once burned down the state assembly in 2001. Self determination the only way forward.” The CJM did not find any attempt or incitement to commit violence and granted him bail.

Despite such orders, Wangkhem’s lawyer Chongtham Victor said that the invocation of sedition charges against unfavourable social media posts continues. “While the police may be familiar with the local laws, they do not appreciate the fabric of the Indian Constitution,” he said.

The sedition cases work on a ‘case to case’ basis, said Meihoubam Rakesh, a lawyer with the Human Rights Law Network in Manipur. “The CJM’s views are based exclusively on the report submitted by the police. The police cannot be barred from using the sedition law,” he said.

In order to quash the charges against him, Thokchom said that he had to surrender his laptop and phone for forensic investigation but suspects the prolonged delay is deliberate. “The police said they have to send it to a forensics lab in Kolkata but it’s just an excuse to keep me chained. I was told that the superintendent of police of Imphal East has approved it but the travel costs are yet to be sanctioned,” he told Article14. “The legal process is itself a punishment.”

Thokchom’s lawyer, Meihoubam, added that even if the CJM expressed displeasure on the investigation done by the police, the case is not over. “Until and unless the police files its final report, the matter lingers on,” he said.

Global human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, which had campaigned for the release of Wangkhem, said that there was ‘no good way to apply sedition (section 124A)’. “It does not comply with international human rights law. It violates the right to freedom of expression under the Indian Constitution. And it goes against India’s tradition of tolerance,” said Avinash Kumar, Executive Director of the India office.

Wangkhem, who now works as a stage anchor and teacher, said that due to the prevailing ‘climate of fear’, people are no longer able to openly express themselves. “Not only Manipur but under a Hindutva leadership, India is in danger because secularism has gone for a toss,” he said.

Silencing Civil Society and Media

Manipur had a long history of rebellion against British occupation and, subsequently, the Indian union, especially on the imposition and overreach of power under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958.

During the Congress era, March 2002 to March 2017, there was collective anger towards then chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh since he was “totally ruthless”, said Babloo Loitongbam, a human rights lawyer and founder of Human Rights Alert (HRA).

But the studied silence from civil society bodies on the recent spate of arrests is uncharacteristic.

This is because a large number of civil society groups have been co-opted by the government, said Loitongbam. “Many civil society leaders are in good positions now and have received government contracts. Some have even joined the BJP or the RSS and have become their spokesperson,” he said.

Many traditional frontline defenders, like the Meira Paibis, the state’s famous women torch bearers, are scared that they might be targeted, said Sadokpam Ranjeeta, a researcher with Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association (EVFAM) and HRA. “They’re seeing that even journalists like Kishorchandra were not spared. Somehow the government has managed to keep them silent,” she said.

NGOs in the state also fear that speaking out may cost them their Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, 2010 (FCRA) license and, in the process, overseas funding, Sadokpam added. “Sometimes they don’t want to do joint statements with us because they are afraid that the government will come after their license,” she said.

To Biren Singh’s credit, Loitongbam said, he was the first chief minister to set up the long overdue Manipur State Human Rights Commission. The acting chairperson, Khaidem Mani was also the lawyer for anti-AFPSA activist Irom Sharmila when she was repeatedly jailed for her 16-year-long hunger strike to repeal the law. When asked for his response to the slew of arrests under sedition and other laws, Mani said ‘the matter was under consideration’.

Several activists Article14 spoke to said that both print and electronic media in Manipur has been considerably compromised under the present government, given the close ties between the chief ministera former editor himselfand the media fraternity.

The All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union (AMWJU) has been silent over Wangkhem’s arrest and detention for sedition and NSA charges. The union, it said in a statement, is not responsible for, “The 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.”

Wangkhem is not surprised. He said AMWJU enjoyed a ‘friendly’ relationship with the government. “More than 50% of the media in the state runs on government advertisements, so the chief minister clearly has an upper hand with them,” he said. Friends in the fraternity had told Wangkhem, he said, that they had been asked to stay out of his case.

Nor did the union speak up for press freedom when a criminal defamation suit was slapped in October 2018 against the editor and a reporter of Imphal Free Press (IFP) an Imphal-based English daily, for a story on an India Today survey of the best performing chief ministers.

Senior editor Paojel Chaoba said that the suit, which drained the small independent publication of Rs 3-4 lakh was “nothing but harassment”.

“The last hearing was scheduled on 11 March but got postponed due to the Covid-19 outbreak,” Chaoba told Article14.

Other media houses have been cautious in reporting on the government. “There was a time when human rights would be on the front pages of Manipur dailies. Now our press release is hardly carried by any of the papers except IFP,” said Loingtonbam.

Mohammad Ayub Khan, editor of the vernacular daily Ichel Express, which carried Chingiz Khan’s article we referred to earlier, told Article14 that there had been some editorial “loopholes” in publishing the piece.

“In a pluralistic state like Manipur, his writing has the risk of fomenting communal disharmony,” said Khan. “This is why it went viral on social media.”

Asked if he saw Chingiz’s arrest as an attack on press freedom, Khan said that due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the paper had been short on staff which is why the article did not go through sufficient editorial scrutiny.

“Seeing the controversy that has erupted, we have decided to not publish his articles anymore,” said Khan. “We have to admit our error here.”

Although Konsam Victor Singh is relieved to be back home, the question of why he was hauled up to the police station still bothers him. When asked if he’d be more careful with his posts from here on, Singh said he’d never harboured any negative intention against the chief minister.

“To criticise or support the government is my social responsibility,” he said. “I have no fear of doing that again”

(Makepeace Sitlhou is a journalist based in Guwahati, Assam. She covers the Northeast region for several national and international publications. You can reach her at makepeace.sitlhou@gmail.com)