Kishorechandra Wangkhem, a seasoned television journalist from the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, has been imprisoned three times over the last three years. He has a history of speaking out on social media against the members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and their policies.
On May 13, he was arrested for the fourth time, and it was worse.
“They entered my house. One of the constables physically assaulted me. My seven-year-old daughter watched it happen. My youngest son is barely a year old,” Wangkhem, 41, told VICE World News. “It broke me that my kids had to watch me getting assaulted by the cops.”
“They will grow up with this image and possibly live with the trauma for several decades,” he added.
Wangkhem, released on interim bail on July 23, is one of the two men who spent two months in prison for uploading Facebook posts that criticised Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party members for recommending cow dung and piss as cures for COVID-19. Erendro Leichombam, a prominent activist in the state, was also arrested on the same night as Wangkhem.
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.
Wangkhem and Leichombam were arrested under the draconian National Security Act (NSA), a colonial-era law that gives the Indian state powers to arrest and detain suspects for up to 12 months even without a formal charge or trial. Biswajit Singh, Manipur’s Minister of Information and Public Relations, told The Print that the district authority took action after “finding merit” in the cases against them.
“They entered my house. One cop physically assaulted me. My seven-year-old daughter watched it happen. My youngest son is barely a year old.” — Kishorechandra Wangkhem
“I’ve been detained by the police before, but this time, I could really feel the pressure on the police officials who dragged me out of my bed, to punish me by putting me in prison,” said 40-year-old Leichombam, who calls his Facebook post a COVID-19 misinformation-buster.
“They were physically very forceful and verbally very abusive. It was clear that Manipur’s government wants to send a larger message to the people and say, ‘If you open your mouth and be disrespectful to us, you’ll land in trouble.’”
Cows are sacred in Hinduism, and products made from their feces and urine are often touted as antidotes to diseases, including COVID-19. The Modi-led government passed laws to protect cattle from being eaten or sold, and to uphold the belief in the animal’s divine powers. They also gave rise to cow vigilantes who kill people in the name of protecting cattle.
Indian journalists and activists have increasingly been targeted for criticising Hindu nationalists. Journalist 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.
“They were physically forceful and verbally abusive. It was clear that Manipur’s government wants to send a larger message to the people: ‘If you open your mouth and be disrespectful to us, you’ll land in trouble.’” — Erendro Leichombam
In a state with a history of insurgency, 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.
This is Wangkhem’s second NSA charge, while it’s the first for Leichombam. Chongtham Victor, their advocate, told VICE World News that this is the “rarest of the rare cases.”
The NSA charges against Leichombam have been dropped but not for Wangkhem. The charges were based on multiple complaints lodged with different police stations, all of which called the two men’s posts a threat to national security and offensive to religious sentiments.
“The opposite party is yet to submit a notice to challenge [Wangkhem’s] interim release,” said Victor. “In both the cases, we are awaiting judgment on whether the detention is legal.”
Wangkhem’s and Leichombam’s legal team has also submitted a petition for compensation. “The NSA has no provision of compensation but since the case is peculiar, it’s being considered,” said Victor. The next hearing is on August 6.
A court hearing on August 24 will determine whether Wangkhem may be released on the grounds of the right to life and liberty. He said that the demand for compensation is to teach the government authorities “a lesson” and “make them think twice before making such arrests.” This would also set a precedent for similar cases in the future.
“When [Leichombam] and I were in police custody on the first day, we decided that we will be careful,” said Wangkhem. “But when the NSA [charge] was slapped on us, I said, ‘No, I have to carry on.’ This is gross injustice, and an abuse of executive powers. NSA [charges] can’t be slapped on mere expression of opinion.”
In the recent past, journalists have also been sacked by their organisations for posting criticism of the government. Last week, a journalist was fired for criticising Modi on Twitter. Journalists have previously spoken out about being coerced by their organisations into parroting the government’s narrative instead of the truth.
Press freedom advocates and journalists have also voiced concerns about the chilling effects of such crackdowns and self-censorship.
“I’ve started thinking twice before saying anything,” said Leichombam. “We have normalised an environment where people who exercise their freedom of speech look like stupid troublemakers. Citizens know everything, but are unable to express anything.”
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