I knew I was swimming against the tide but I stood firm on my ground. My wife, Ranjita, visiting me at Sajiwa Central Jail, asked me what I had decided. I said I would never bow down, for I had done no wrong. It seemed everyone or everything was against me and my family. It is the truth that prevails in the end; and justice has been served. But the imminence of light doesn’t always feel like a guaranteed thing when you’re stuck in the tunnel. All hell had broken loose on November 19, 2018, when I criticised the ruling party and its government on social media for their lack of concern for the history, religion and culture of the region’s ethnic minorities. Yes, in my pique, I’d allowed myself some expletives…I realise I could have worded it in a better way. Anyway, I was arrested the next day, charged with sedition and defamation and remanded to six days’ police custody.
It seemed unreal—and luckily, temporary. On November 26, the CJM Imphal West granted me bail against the 15-day judicial remand sought by the authorities. My family breathed a sigh of relief, and I too felt the trauma slowly ebbing away. But the very next day, plainclothes police arrived at my house and picked me up—and I found myself sitting in the office of the Additional SP (Law and Order), Imphal West, for nearly five hours. I came to know I was being detained under the National Security Act (NSA) only after I was taken to Sajiwa.
I belong to a small, unrecognised minority religion called Sanamahism, a pre-Hindu traditional ethnic stream. My point was not about the government’s other policies but the ruling party’s ideology: its recent attempts at religious and cultural assimilation targeting the smaller ethnic groups of the Northeast in general and Manipur in particular. Majoritarian rule has become a threat to the culture and tradition of ethnic minorities—the essence of their identity and being. Their very existence, in a way. My outburst also sprung from the suppression of dissent and abuse of right to freedom of speech and expression increasingly meted out to citizens in the last couple of years. Whosoever raises questions against the current regime is threatened, harassed or killed. As a concerned citizen, I felt I should speak up for the protection of minority identities. Popular outrage across the Northeast against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which erupted a month after I was detained, was a manifestation of this latent anger among ethnic minority groups. What purpose does democracy serve if personal freedoms enshrined in the Constitution are not respected and secularism and plurality are challenged?
How can a colonial-era sedition law and a black law such as NSA come into play against Indian citizens for mere criticism of authority? In my case, the gloom was deeper. Barring a few, no civil organisation came out openly in condemnation of the government—ironical in a state known for the maximum number of civil organisations and mass movements against injustice. No Meira Paibis (women torch-bearers) were in sight outside my prison. None of that otherwise vocal element, students’ unions. Even the media fraternity disowned me. Neighbours stopped talking to my family. What fear had silenced them? Finally, it’s law itself that came as redemption. My petition at the High Court of Manipur was moved on December 22, 2018. After four hearings, through February and early March, the court finally quashed my detention under NSA on April 8. I walked free two days later: I had spent 133 days in jail.
I would not say life in jail is as harsh as it’s assumed generally. I encountered no physical harassment. Inmates spend time with sundry activities during the day and early evening—time glides by silently. It’s when the lights are turned off after 9 in the evening that the mind starts thinking. I might have asked myself millions of questions. I thought of the progress of the case, I thought of my family. Whenever I met them once in a fortnight, they would talk about the threats, blank calls, lewd messages, social stigma and isolation. Despite being separated by force, we shared that unspeakable mental trauma. It’s impossible to communicate that sense of hope itself expiring. The one thing that always made me cry was when I thought of my elder daughter. I couldn’t keep myself from breaking down even when I first saw her after my release.
Ranjita did a monumental and stupendous job with a small band of like-minded friends, fellow-journalists and human rights defenders when almost everyone in my state, including my own fraternity, abdicated. I am happy now that I am free—even though I am still weak and under medical treatment for high blood sugar. Even as I silently thank all those who extended support and solidarity, I don’t think this is the end here. Serious and difficult work looms ahead: as a journalist, as a voice for the rights of minority communities and for freedom of speech. Let my case be an example. And rest assured…I will continue to speak.(The writer, a journalist, was jailed for 133 days under NSA for criticising the government)