Two wrongs don’t make a right. Three definitely don’t.
If what the Imphal-based journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem did was wrong, what the Manipur government has been doing to him is no less wrong. That journalists and media organisations are generally silent over the treatment meted out to one of their colleagues over the past two months is equally wrong.
Wangkhem has been in the Sajiwa Central Jail of Imphal east since November. His crime: he had criticised Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh and his BJP party leaders on Facebook. To criticise the Chief Minister, who he felt was a ‘puppet’ of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was well within his rights. But he threw in a few expletives in his Facebook posts and the state government came down on him with a heavy hand.
First, he was charged with sedition on November 21. But a local court held that the street language he had used did not amount to sedition and set him free on bail on November 25. However, Wangkhem was re-arrested two days later, this time under the National Security Act (NSA) that allows the state to incarcerate an accused in jail for up to a year without trial. Wangkhem has been in prison since.
By all accounts, his jailing is a gross abuse of state power. But unlike in the rest of the country that is quick to erupt in outrage every time the administration oversteps its authority, Wangkhem’s detention in Manipur hasn’t evoked a similar outcry. Some organisations did decry the government and there have been some efforts on social media to draw attention to his plight. For some reason, the protests have stayed as a murmur and not escalated into a roar.
The northeast often cites the ‘tyranny of distance’ as a prime reason for being ignored by the rest of the country. Misconceptions abound, and the northeastern states say they do not find adequate representation in the national narrative. While much of it is true, the same ‘tyranny of distance’ seems to be benefiting the government of Manipur. Having locked up a journalist by brazenly overreaching its authority, it has got off rather lightly and has largely escaped scrutiny and censure.
It’s about time this travesty of justice is put to an end. Wangkhem must be freed, and whoever thought of locking him up must be punished. Of course, freedom of expression must be exercised responsibly and Wangkhem must learn to be more civil in his public utterances. But those in authority must also be responsible. If not, they must be held accountable.
As for the media, they must shed their indifference and take up the cause of Wangkhem. As a freshly minted member of the Editors’ Guild of India, I would hope the editors will take the lead. A journalist cannot be allowed to rot in jail in silence. We need to raise a din and shame his jailers.