The controversy over the arrest of TV anchor, Kishorechandra Wangkhem, and his subsequent jail sentence is a festering sore in the reputation of the BJP government in Manipur. Wangkhem was booked under the National Security Act, just because he posted a Facebook video in which he called chief minister N. Biren Singh a puppet of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The government has come to be known for being oversensitive to criticism, clamping down on anyone making adverse remarks against it, even on social media. Kishorechandra is the latest case but there have been similar outlandish arrests before him.
Kishorechandra was booked twice for the same Facebook post. The first was on November 20 on sedition charges but was set free on November 25 after a chief judicial magistrate’s court ruled that the post was just an “expression of private opinion in street language”. Then, in what was seen as vengeful overkill, the government re-arrested him on November 27, overruling the court’s verdict, this time under the NSA. How a man’s criticism of the government and his foul language are a threat to national security has not been explained.
This is, however, not the first time this journalist invited the ire of the government. In August, he had been detained by the police, again for a Facebook post in which he translated BJP as the “‘Buddhu Joker Party’ high on animal urine”. On that occasion, the editor of the cable TV network he worked for apologised to the chief minister and negotiated his release. How a chief minister, and not the court, can have people arrested or released is again a mystery.
Before him, in October, Popilal Ningthoujam, an activist of a new political party, People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance, to which the iconic hunger-striker Irom Sharmila once belonged, was arrested for a similar show of alleged disrespect to the BJP government. Following an outrageous midnight police raid inside the Manipur University campus to break a paralysing strike by teachers and students, which ended in the arrest of six teachers and 21 students, Popilal and others staged a protest in which they threw eggs on photographs of BJP leaders, including the CM and PM, and then uploaded a video of it on Facebook. Popilal, in defiance, did not avail bail for nearly a month, but finally took wiser counsel and was released.
What is disturbing in all these is the manner in which the judiciary is being progressively dwarfed by the executive. Alongside this, other developments point to a similar erosion of yet another pillar of democracy. The Manipur Legislative Assembly is increasingly being made irrelevant. There are eight defector MLAs, one of them a minister, who left their original party, the Congress, to join the BJP and give the latter a majority at the time of the government formation in March 2017. In that elections, in the House of 60, the Congress won 28 seats, the BJP 21 and smaller parties together accounted for the rest. Almost two years later, the Congress defectors continue to sit on the Opposition benches and vote with the ruling party, making a farce of the anti-defection law.
The diminishing importance of the Manipur Legislative Assembly was again evident when its winter session this year lasted just two days, December 20 and 21. The first day passed completing formalities and obituary references, and on the last day, three important bills were rushed through, including one that pertained to prohibition of mob violence, the penalty for which can be as severe as life imprisonment. The idea of public policies forged on the hot anvil of assembly debates is now becoming a receding memory.
The controversy over Kishorechandra’s arrest also mauled the state of the media in Manipur, in particular the two important journalist bodies, the All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union and Editors Guild, Manipur. For an entire month after the controversy broke out, leaders of the organisations showed little or no concern, saying the arrested journalist is a serial offender. One of them even officially disowned him as a journalist, forgetting that the issue was not so much about Kishorechandra the person, but of vindictive and vengeful misuse of power by those in power. Later, thankfully a general body meeting of the AMSJU corrected this perspective.
Probably, all these have a lot to do with desensitisation by years of living in a conflict situation, but also co-option by the establishment. The casualty expectedly has been a general confusion, if not a decay, of faith amongst its practitioners in the mandate of the journalistic profession as an interrogator and adversary of power.
(The writer is Editor of Imphal Free Press and author of The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers and Shadow and Light: A Kaleidoscope of Manipur)