A sea of solidarity and support for Manipuri journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem, who has spent more than two months in jail after being detained under the National Security Act for a Facebook post criticising Chief Minister N. Biren Singh, was witnessed at a press conference and public meeting organised by the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) and Manipur Students Association (MSA) in New Delhi on January 29.
The meeting had a retired Supreme Court judge, lawyers and activists condemning the arrest of the journalist under a draconian law in no uncertain terms. Wangkhem was initially charged with sedition, and when the case did not stick and the magistrate granted him bail, he was booked under the NSA. His fault was criticising the CM for following in the footsteps of the Hindutva demagogues and trying to erode the indigenous history and culture which the people of Manipur are fiercely proud about. He had uploaded a video in which he is seen criticising the N. Biren Singh’s government for comparing the fight of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi against the British to that of Manipur’s freedom movement against the colonial rule.
True that Wangkhem had used some expletives and unparliamentary language, but how does it warrant detention as a threat to national security, the speakers asked.
“Sedition law is not understood properly. In the old English law, thinking or saying a few words in private against the crown was punishable. Things may be offensive and abhorrent but it has nothing to do with sedition law unless torts and words are supported by actions. Classic cases in Punjab and Kashmir where people who hadn’t actually acted against the State were said to be seditious, and the Supreme Court acquitted them both,” said senior advocate Colin Gonsalves who founded HRLN. He was referring to the apex court’s seminal decision in the Balwant Singh case, wherein it was held that merely shouting Khalistan Zindabad is not sedition, unless it is followed by violent action.
Justice (retd) Markandey Katju, former Supreme Court Judge, said, “Undemocratic politicians have lost their minds. In a democracy, people have the right to criticise the government and democracy means people are supreme. There have been many cases where artists, cartoonists and journalists have been attacked. This is my appeal to Manipur’s people to become the leader and guide the way and start the movement.” He cited the US Supreme Court case of Brandenburg v Ohio, in which it was held that a person cannot be arrested for offensive speech unless it leads to immediate lawless action. He also cited his own ruling in Rekha v State of Tamil Nadu in which he held that unless there are gravely compelling circumstances, a person should not be arrested under laws like NSA when sections under the regular Indian Penal Code would suffice.
Ranjita Elangbam, wife of Wangkhem, narrated how their life was turned upside down only because her husband decided to criticise the government. “Police forces were in our house searching for him, in all places. It might be their duty or they may be under pressure to look for that guy, but they were searching for my daughter, they were asking ‘how much money do you have’. They searched my phone, took it away and we couldn’t communicate with anyone,” she said.
“The police kept him under judicial custody for 5 days. On November 26, they got bail and the next day, he was detained under NSA. We were left helpless and stranded alone and we didn’t know how to sort things out. Our community treated us as criminals, we were completely ostracised, and the prison personnel would ask humiliating questions when I used to go and meet my husband and provide him with books and stationery,” she said.
“In modern India, the State is not free to act in any manner it likes; it is inconceivable that a civilised country would use preventive detention as a substitute for the criminal law. National Security Act has been misused and abused far too often as a political weapon of those in power against their political or ideological enemies and to curtail the dissenting voice. NSA is dangerous to a secular democracy like India as it is extremely prejudicial to personal liberty and violates fundamental rights of freedom of speech and expression. We strongly condemn the use of draconian law like NSA against journalists, and political and human rights activists working in the interest of the people and demand immediate release of journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem and to repeal NSA,” said Shreeji Bhavsar, advocate at HRLN who is handling the case of Wangkhem.
Thokchom Veewon, president of MSA, Delhi, pointed out that detaining people under NSA has become a norm in Manipur and the people of the state, suffering under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act for decades, have become inured.
“Manipur, as a state, has been neglected by the government and we have been fighting against the armed forces since a long time. This has become a norm to detain someone under NSA as far as Manipur is concerned. And this is disheartening to know that this is the kind of society we are living in. What freedom means for us is Lingthamba - the right to protest without violence,” added Veewon. He said that when his association protested in Delhi against Kishorechandra’s arrest, police personnel from four police stations, numbering around 400, swooped down on 40 to 50 protesters.
“While we disagree with Kishorechandra’s use of language, we are firm in the belief that charges under Sedition Act and the NSA should not have been slapped,” said Sabina Inderjit, general secretary of Indian Journalists Union (IJU) and vice-president of International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). Emphasising that a vibrant press impacted the whole of democracy, Inderjit assured Ranjita that she is not alone in this fight.
The next hearing date for Wangkhem’s habeas corpus petition in the Manipur High Court is February 1. While the government is yet to file the counter affidavit to his petition, Wangkhem’s lawyer Bhavsar expressed optimism at the charges being dropped at the last moment due to intense media pressure. “However, even if they persist, we will collectively slug it out,” he said.