KOLKATA, West Bengal — After six days in custody last November, an Imphal court ruled that Kishorechandra Wangkhem be set free as he had not committed a seditious act, as alleged by Manipur’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led state government.
The next day, the state police arrested him afresh and charged him under the draconian National Security Act of 1980 that allows a person to be arrested for up to a year without bail.
Wangkhem’s crime? Uploading a Facebook video in which he criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP government in Manipur for celebrating the birth anniversary of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, Madhya Pradesh, while ignoring freedom fighters from the state.
On April 10 2019, four-and-half months after he was arrested in November 2018, Wangkhem finally walked free — unbowed, unrepentant, and profoundly alive to the threat that the ruling BJP poses to India’s democratic fabric.
“When the court couldn’t find anything seditious in what I said, how did the government decide that I was a threat to national security?” Wangkhem told HuffPost India in an interview soon after he was released. “Guess we will never know.”
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As millions of Indians line up to vote for a new government, Wangkhem’s arrest illustrates how high the stakes are in the 2019 general elections, at a time when constitutional rights and freedoms are under threat across the length and breadth of the country, and most visibly in states like Manipur that have a long history of police abuses and oppression.
Worryingly, Wangkhem’s case isn’t an exception. In February 2019, a special cell of the Manipur police travelled all the way to Delhi to arrest student activist Veewon Thokchom on charges of sedition for a Facebook post criticising the BJP’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill. Thokchom was released four days later, in Manipur, after posting a Rs 30,000 bail bond.
“When the court couldn’t find anything seditious in what I said, how did the government decide that I was a threat to national security?
“If it’s within our powers, we will make the sedition law even more stringent,” the BJP’s outgoing Home Minister Rajnath Singh said in a public rally on April 13 2019. “We will make such a strict law that it would send shivers down their spine.”
Yet, Wangkhem’s story is also reflects how the fight for freedom continues despite the overwhelming might of a state-apparatus gone rogue.
When Wangkhem’s wife Ranjita visited him in the Sijawa Central Jail in Imphal soon after his arrest, she asked him if he wanted to apologise to the government, in exchange for his freedom.
“It is against my dignity, integrity and ethics,” he told her.
“Let’s fight this then,” Ranjita said, and so they did. Her two daughters, aged four and one-and-half in tow, she began her seemingly unending journeys from lawyers to courts to police stations back to lawyers even as she negotiated the social stigma of having a husband in prison. Alarmed by the frequent visits of the police to their house and news of Wangkhem being arrested, most of his neighbours stopped interacting with the family.
“The sedition law was used by the British to oppress Indians who dared to rise against them. Now we are using the same laws to oppress our own people?” Wangkhem said. “What kind of a democracy is this?”
STATE VERSUS DISSENT
The police first came for Wangkhem in August 2018.
“I had written a Facebook post criticising the chief minister and the BJP’s attempts to appoint someone close to the RSS as the vice-chancellor of the Manipur University,” Wangkhem said. “The next day, police arrived at my house.”
Wangkhem was taken to the police station and kept in the lock-up for a day and before he was produced before a local court.
As word of his arrest went out, the journalism community in Manipur protested and a day later, Wangkhem was released. He was told that the All Manipur Working Journalists Union had ‘apologised’ and secured his release.
“I was slightly confused as to why they should apologise, because I was not wrong. But I was also touched that they did and made sure I was released,” he said.
The next day however, the head of the journalists union told him to go to the Chief Minister’s house to apologise for his Facebook post. Wangkhem refused and that, he said, put him on a collision course with the government. Three months later, when he uploaded his post about Rani Laxmibai, his ordeal began afresh.
“It is against my dignity, integrity and ethics,” he told her.
On November 19, Wangkhem had uploaded videos in English and Meitei, the indegenous language of Manipur, criticising BJP, Modi and the government for celebrating the birth anniversary of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, and ignoring the freedom fighters from their own state. The next day, the officer-in-charge (OC) of the Imphal police station lodged a complaint against him, charging him with sedition and defamation. The OC was later made the investigating officer (IO) in Wangkhem’s case making his chance at a just probe even slimmer. “The man said that he had come across my post while surfing the internet casually. And that he found the content objectionable,” Wangkhem said.
“It does not appear to me to such which is intended to create enmity between different groups of people community, sections etc nor does it appear to be one which attempts to bring hatred, contempt, dissatisfaction against the government of India or of the state. It is mere expression of opinion against the Prime Minister and chief minister of Manipur which cannot be equated with an attack to invite people to violence against the government of India or Manipur to topple it,” the court order granting him bail the day before he was jailed under the NSA, said. That did not stop the police from finding a way to bypass it.
“Those were the darkest days of my life,” 39-year-old Wangkhem told HuffPost India.
Wangkhem’s arrest points at a pattern followed by the Manipur government and the BJP. This year, the Manipur Police arrested Thokchom and filed a suo motu FIR against him. The cyber crime cell of Manipur Police claimed that they had been ‘tipped off’ by any anonymous source about Thokchom’s Facebook post criticising the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
BJP VERSUS MINORITIES
In 2014, the year the Narendra Modi government came to power in Delhi, Wangkhem got his break in journalism at as an anchor on Impact TV, a local cable news channel in Imphal.
“I was always interested in news and politics, so when I landed a job as a news anchor, I was thrilled,” said Wangkhem, who used to work as an English teacher at a competitive exam coaching centre. He said he was critical of the BJP from well before the party came to power at the centre because of its ‘majoritarian politics’ and the party’s insistence on imposing Hindutva on the North East’s diverse cultures. Wangkhem, for instance, is a Sanamahist, a religious sect native to Manipur.
“My fears were confirmed after BJP came to power in Manipur in 2017,” he said. “As it is, the histories of the north east people are conveniently ignored by the rest of India, now they were erasing it.”
The state government, for instance, began promoting north Indian Hindu traditions like Raksha Bandhan rather than celebrating indigenous ceremonies like Ningol Chakouba. The celebration of Rani Laxmibai’s birth anniversary, struck Wangkhem as particularly absurd because Laxmibai fought in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, while Manipur was annexed by the British in 1891.
In 2018, Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh said there was ‘no separate Arunachal Pradesh or Assam or Manipur’ and all the north eastern states were “made a part of India by Lord Krishna.” Pema Khandu, the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, who is also from the BJP, added to this bizarre retelling of history by suggesting Krishna married a woman from north-east, making all people from north-east the descendants of Krishna.
“It is a well-oiled strategy of diluting the culture and history of our people,” Wangkhem said.
“When you hear about the freedom struggle of India, how many north eastern names come up in that conversation? How many people from north-east are hero worshipped like the rest of them? When Manipur fought against the British, a lot of people laid down their lives as well, but you will hear nothing of it,” he said.
“North-east India won’t decide who wins at the centre, but we should elect a single BJP MP to the Centre,” Wangkhem added. “If we do, it will be like digging our own grave.”
A POLICE STATE?
Wangkhem said that soon after his arrest, his wife started receiving lewd messages on social media. “She was being stalked, flooded with hate messages,” he said.
She feared approaching the police as they were the ones who had arrested Wangkhem. Wangkhem languished in jail, and worried about the state terrorising Ranjita and its agents harassing her.
“At most times she wouldn’t tell me what’s happening to her, lest I worry,” he said.
The first few days in the jail were disorienting, but soon Wangkhem bumped into other victims of the nation state. “There are some good people and some bad people there as well,” he said, recollecting a group of Ronhigya Muslims he met in the jail who had been languishing in jail for seven years.
Wangkhem is unwilling to view his ordeal as a personal tragedy.
“It has been happening to so many people here. More people should speak up against it,” he said. The travails of the north east, he said, were largely ignored by both the mainstream media and people in India.
Four months in jail have left his family shaken but Wangkhem is not in a mood to shut up or back down. “In fact, this is the beginning of a new journey,” he said.