NEW DELHI: Wangkhem Kishorchandra, a journalist for Information Service Television Network (ISTV) in Manipur, was arrested on November 20, 2018, for posting a video recording in which he condemned the stance of Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren Singh for his speech on the Rani of Jhansi. He had questioned the Rani’s role in Manipur’s freedom struggle.
On December 14, the state government approved the detention of former ISTV staff, Kishorchandra Wangkhem under National Security Act (NSA) passed by the district magistrate, Imphal West and fixed the period of detention for a period of one year from the date of detention.
While the Manipuri journalist has petitioned the High Court, challenging his detention under NSA, journalists’ organisations across the country have expressed outrage and have demanded that the charges be “dropped in the interests of justice and the right to freedom of speech and expression.”
On November 26, the chief judicial magistrate had released Wangkhem, stating that, “The words, terms and gesture used by the accused in the video cannot be termed as seditious. It is a mere expression of opinion against the public conduct of public figure in a street language.”
However, on November 27, the journalist was picked up from his residence by the police and detained under the draconian National Security Act (NSA).
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The District Magistrate of Imphal West issued the ground of detention under the Act to Wangkhem’s wife four days after his detention, whereas as per the Code of Criminal Procedure, the relatives or close friends of the accused have to be informed at the time arrest.
"In consonance with the opinion expressed by the Advisory Board and in exercise of the powers conferred under Section 12(1) of the said Act, the Governor of Manipur is pleased to order that the detention of Kishorchandra Wangkhem... is hereby confirmed," the order from the office of Manipur governor Dr Najma Heptulla stated.
On December 19, 2018 Wangkhem filed a petition before the High Court of Manipur challenging his detention order under National Security Act, which is also a habeas corpus writ. His lawyer Ch. Victor also prayed to the court to quash the detention order, approval order and confirmation order saying that none of the grounds furnished to the petitioner cover the expression of “prejudicial to the security of the state and to the maintenance of public order.”
It also mentioned that, “The grounds of detention are vague and the allegations made therein did not lend apprehension for acting in any manner prejudicial to the security of the state and to the maintenance of public order. Those so-called grounds merely relates to freedom of speech and expression at best.”
Following the confirmation of his detention under NSA, many journalists organisations and activists have condemned the Manipur’s Biren Singh-led BJP Government for using a “draconian law” such as NSA to suppress critics.
This is not the first time the Chief Minister has drawn criticism for resorting to extreme measures to deal with dissenting voices. Earlier this year, he was embroiled in the Manipur University Midnight-crackdown controversy in which 89 students and 9 teachers were arrested from the University’s campus.
Ranjita Wangthoi, wife of Kishorchandra Wangkhem told Newsclick, “this is really absurd. He was already on bail and there is no proof of any violence caused due to his post or any communal riots that they have put NSA on him for 12 months. We have filed a case in the High Court and we are ready to fight against this.”
Support for Wangkhem poured in from Delhi, too.
“To book individuals under non-bailable and harsh laws for using allegedly intemperate language to criticize government's decisions or individuals in government, is a measure of governmental overreach apart from being a violation of the fundamental right to free speech. We demand that the harsh provisions under which Mr Wangkhem has been booked be dropped in the interests of justice and the right to freedom of speech and expression” read a joint statement by Indian Women's Press Corps, Press Club of India, Press Association and Federation of Press Clubs in India.
Yambem Laba, a senior Journalist from Imphal told Newsclick, “the crisis in Manipur is that you cannot criticise the Chief Minister in any way. This is fascist Government. Kishorchandra is a fellow journalist and I know him very well. The Chief Judicial Magistrate had already found him not guilty of sedition charges. The crux of the matter is that the CM will go to any length to suppress voices that speak anything against its government. It’s an attack on the freedom of speech and the entire media community of Manipur.”
Erendro Leichombam, convener of Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA) told Newsclick, “NSA was uncalled for. He was already acquitted but because the CM was not satisfied he abused his power. This has never happened in Manipur before. It is a blatant disregard of judiciary. I will even go to the extent of calling it politics of persecution. This Government is very petty, very vengeful and i can only say that this is a dictatorial government and not a democratic government. They have turned Manipur into a dictatorial state.”
While these were some reactions towards Biren’s government, many activists also believe that this is the perfect example of what a law like the NSA can do.
The National Security Act’s (NSA) preventive detention regime has become a convenient tool to obscure the flaws in the Indian criminal justice system and it deprives individuals of their constitutional and statutory rights. Preventive detention is the extra-judicial confinement of an individual without charge – for up to one year under the NSA – purportedly to prevent a potential future crime.
INC’s official Twitter handle tweeted, “The Modi Government is wielding the National Security Act as a weapon against free speech, specifically targeting journalists and marginalised communities.”
Sharmila Purkayastha, member of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) told Newsclick, “Preventive detention is a tool used to prevent people from exercising any rights. There was a case where a person was kept under preventive detention 41 times. Now if you think a person is so dangerous, file a chargesheet, try that person and prosecute that person. But instead of doing that, when you know that you have no evidence, you are going by your completely subjective discretion that you don't like XYZ, you put him under preventive detention and you don't need to do anything else.”