On May 13, police forcefully took a journalist and an activist from their homes and threw them in prison.
They’ve been in jail since. Their crime? Facebook posts that criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party for recommending cow dung and piss as cures for COVID-19.
In India’s Manipur state – a sparsely populated region about the size of New Jersey – police came at night to arrest political activist Erendro Leichombam.
“It was traumatic for my parents,” Leichombam’s brother Sikendro told VICE World News. “The cops pushed my mother while making the arrest.”
Some three miles away, police barged into the home of journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem to arrest him, too. They assaulted him in front of his three young children, his wife said.
“My three-year-old daughter pooped in her pyjamas and started crying as my seven-year-old tried to calm her,” Wangkhem’s wife Ranjita Elangbam told VICE World News. Their third child is nine months old.
Leichombam and Wangkhem have a history of speaking out on social media against members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and their policies, and they’ve gotten into trouble for it before.
This time, they were arrested under India’s draconian National Security Act (NSA), an old colonial law that gives the Indian state powers to arrest and detain suspects for up to 12 months even without a formal charge or trial.
Chongtham Victor, their lawyer, told VICE World News that they’re challenging the arrests on grounds of constitutional rights to free speech, and added that it was complaints filed by BJP members with the police that landed the two men in jail.
One complaint alleged that the Facebook posts “deliberately and wilfully insulted and outraged religious feelings and sentiments” of BJP workers and family members of the deceased.
Leichombam's Facebook post read, “The cure for Corona is not cow dung & cow urine. The cure is science & common sense.” Wanghem’s post stated that cow dung and urine don’t work as cures for COVID-19.
Both comments came after a local BJP leader died from COVID-19 complications, even as other party members shared viral videos promoting supposed cures made from cow dung and urine.
“The allegations are completely illogical and totally false,” Victor said. “I can’t say how long [Leichombam and Wanghkem] will be [in jail]. We’re approaching this case carefully. It's a very tricky circumstance.”
Cows are sacred in Hinduism, and products made from their feces and urine are often touted as antidotes to diseases, including COVID-19. In the last decade, the BJP has passed laws based on the belief in the holy status of cows.
These laws protect cattle from being eaten or sold, and uphold the belief in the animal’s divine powers. The government even set up a National Cow Commission for the purpose. At least 20 states have banned beef consumption, or regulate the sale of cows.
Since Modi came to power, Hindu nationalist mobs have killed dozens in the name of protecting cows. The victims were usually Muslims or other minorities, and the killers often got away with their crimes.
Doctors have said there is no scientific basis for claims that cattle wastes can be therapeutic or antiseptic, but BJP leaders continue to promote it as a cure for COVID-19.
Leichombam’s family believes these arrests show the party is willing to go after anyone who contradicts them.
Indian journalists and activists have increasingly been targeted for criticising Hindu nationalists. Last month, several journalists faced a criminal investigation for tweeting about an incident of violence against a Muslim man. Rana Ayyub wrote about being harassed for reporting in India. “I can’t be a journalist – we are now enemies of the state,” she said.
With the Indian military fighting decades-old insurgency in Manipur, journalists and activists in the state have gotten used to heavy government crackdowns. Manipur’s 2.7 million people have seen the most terrorism and sedition charges in the country, with more than 5,000 suspects currently charged with violating archaic laws like the NSA.
Media reports show the NSA has been used at least 15 times in Manipur to crack down on criticism of the government's pandemic response. The internet was completely shut down in the state five times in the last four years.
Wangkhem had been arrested thrice before for criticising the state government. His wife Elangbam said this latest arrest happened within half an hour of the journalist posting on Facebook.
“It was almost like they were expecting it… My husband is targeted because he’s a public figure with a lot of influence. He’s seen as a threat,” she added.
Sikendro said his brother always spoke out against injustice. Leichombam, too, faced sedition charges and was arrested once before for criticising BJP members.
“My brother is speaking up not just for himself but also for the people of the state,” said Sikendro. “He’s not going to stop despite the attempts to muzzle his free speech.”
Leichombam’s family has filed a plea at the Supreme Court to challenge the order for his preventive detention.
Biswajit Singh, Manipur’s Minister of Information and Public Relations, told The Print that the district authority took action against the two men after “finding merit” in the cases against them. “The government has taken note of the entire issue; the file is pending with the chief minister,” he said.
Earlier this year, Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh told reporters that freedom of speech and expression, although protected under the Indian Constitution, cannot be misused. “In cases where security and public order is violated, the law will automatically take its course,” he said.
But the arrests have sent the people of the state a chilling message against criticising their government, Sikandro said. “Even journalists are mindful about covering my brother’s story.”
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