NEW DELHI — At 5.15 in the evening on February 15, five plain-clothes policemen, three from Delhi and two from Manipur, arrived at Thokchom Veewon’s rented apartment in south Delhi, physically assaulted him, forced him into a waiting Maruti Alto and sped off.
For the next two days Thokchom, a 23-year-old student leader from Manipur, was untraceable even as the Manipur police kept calling his parents to assure them he was safe. On February 19, four days after his arrest, he was freed on bail after posting a bond of Rs 30,000.
Thokchom, it turned out, had been charged with sedition after the Manipur police spotted a Facebook post in which he criticised the Citizenship Amendment Bill — the Bharatiya Janta Party’s controversial bill that upends the existing conception of Indian citizenship by offering Indian citizenship to so-called persecuted minorities of all religions except Islam.
The bill has sparked protests all over the North East, and has pushed the BJP’s alliance partner in Assam to walk out of the government.
In his post, Thokchom wrote, “Indefinite curfew imposed in Manipur. Internet banned for 5 days. All cable TV network asked not to cover any speech or footage of the protest. High possibility that CAB will be passed today at the Rajya Sabha. Manipur once burned down the state assembly in 2001. Self determination the only way forward.”
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Thokchom’s arrest, activists say, shows how the BJP-led state government in Manipur seeking to please their overlords in Delhi by aggressively clamping down on those protesting the policies of the Modi-led BJP government in the centre. He has become the latest in the line of dozens of people — from auto-rickshaw drivers to serving policemen — who have been slapped with ‘sedition’ cases for social media posts critical of the BJP, the government at the centre or Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Further, Thokchom’s arrest is particularly worrying at a time when the Union government is seeking to build specialised tools to monitor all social media posts of citizens.
Thokchom, who is a former President of the Manipur Students Union told HuffPost India that despite his arrest, he stands by his post and has hence not deleted it from his profile.
AN ‘ANONYMOUS TIP’ AND A MAN-HUNT
The Rajya Sabha was considering the Citizenship Amendment Bill on February 12, when Thokchom wrote his post. The bill had already been rammed through the Lok Sabha without debate, prompting outcry.
A few hours later, he was at a student union meeting when he received a frantic call from his mother, who said the local Manipur police had visited their home in Imphal.
“What have you done? Two policemen had just come to ask about you, delete whatever you have written, change your SIM. There’s more police coming,” his mother said, before abruptly disconnecting the call.
That evening, three police vehicles with roughly 15 policemen rolled up to the gates of the Thokchom family home in Imphal. Some policemen made their way into the house, others stood around the gates, while their superior officers told Thokchom’s mother to tell her son to ‘concentrate on his studies’ and ‘not get into trouble’.
They left half an hour later after instructing his mother to reprimand his son . As the vehicles sped away, concerned neighbours trooped into his house, wondering what may have drawn an army of police to the house.
“It was strange. Some of my cousins work in the police station and many of the officers know our family pretty well. We still can’t figure why so many people, in that many cars had to come,” said Thokchom Venus, Veewon’s brother.
His mother was terrified and his father, who had been a student leader himself in his youth, was shaken at the sheer show of force by the police. He asked his son to ‘stay out of trouble’ and ‘finish his studies’ instead.
Thokchom said he was furious, and also concerned by the number of policemen who claimed to be looking for him.
“I wrote another Facebook status the next day condemning the police for arriving at my doorstep and intimidating my parents like that,” he said.
Soon friends from Manipur and acquaintances from Delhi began texting and calling Thokchom saying they were getting calls from unknown numbers asking if they knew him.
“I don’t know who these people were, friend’s friend’s friend and people twice removed from my relations,” he said.
On the afternoon of 15 February, Thokchom’s elder brother — an artiste who lives in Saket — got a call from his landlord. The man, sounding furious, told him that the police had come looking for Veewon and told him and the neighbours that Veewon had abducted a 15-year-old Manipuri girl.
He didn’t want to have anything to do with the family and Veewon’s brother must pack his things the soonest and leave, the man said.
“After the news came out in papers, my brother has been trying to get them to see the truth that I haven’t abducted anybody. However, when a bunch of policemen land in a middle class Indian man’s house saying such things, how will they get past it?” Thokchom told HuffPost India, adding that he was wondering if he would sue the police for slander.
That evening, three men from the Delhi Police and two from Manipur Police arrived at Thokchom’s doorstep. When he and his sister demanded to know why he was being arrested and who filed a complaint, the Delhi Police men lost their cool. An argument ensued and one of them slapped Thokchom.
“My sister grabbed another police and asked them to stop his colleague,” he said. The police responded by also charging Thokchom with obstructing a public servant on duty.
On their way to the Janakpuri police station, where Thokchom was kept in a lock-up for two days, the Delhi Police personnel asked what he intended to do in future. When Veewon said he had applied for PhD, they immediately asked, “So you will go to JNU? Or Aligarh Muslim University?”
“It was sort of amusing. I said I had applied to JNU yes,” Veewon said.
Choudhary Ali Zia Kabir, a lawyer with the Human Rights Law Network who is handling Veewon’s case told HuffPost India that this was one of the more alarming of the ‘sedition’ cases.
Instead of an individual complaining, Veewon was arrested on the basis of a suo motu FIR filed by the Manipur Police. Kabir shared a letter which has the Officer-in-charge of the cyber-crime cell of Manipur Police complaining to the Superintendent of the Police about Thokchom’s Facebook post. The OC mentions that they received an ‘anonymous tip’ in the form of a ‘screenshot’ about Thokchom’s post and conducted an suo motu enquiry. The SI then converted the complaint to a FIR and sent it to the Langlai police station.
“The political pressure on the case is evident from the fact that the police themselves filed an FIR against him,” Kabir said.
A SINISTER MESSAGE
Veewon is inconvenient to the BJP both in Manipur and outside the state. Like in Assam and Tripura, Manipur’s BJP government is on shaky grounds after the Centre passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill which seeks to provide citizenship to non-Muslim migrants to India. The north-eastern states, which bear the most burden of migration, especially from Bangladesh is up in arms against the bill arguing not only does it not acknowledge their demand of banning immigration altogether, it promotes communal disharmony in the states.
Manipur, however, has been cracking down on critics of the BJP with unprecedented viciousness. In December, the Biren Singh government jailed a journalist under the National Security Act for a year for accusing the chief minister of being Narendra Modi’s puppet, an accusation made against various chief ministers in India by hundreds of individuals and groups. Veewon was one of the student leaders who organised protests in Delhi to protest the atrocities inflicted on the journalist Krishnachandra Wankhem. “I had written several Facebook posts, reached out to national media, held demonstrations in Delhi to protest Wangkhem’s arrest. Then of course, I have been constantly protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Bill,” he said.
While Veewon thinks he has been picked out because he is ‘weak’ compared to organised civil society groups in Manipur and thereby easy for the government to make an ‘example’ out of, Manipuri activist Babloo Loitongbam believes the student is actually a big worry for the government.
By arresting Veewon the BJP leader of north east could also be trying to please their bosses in Delhi and show them all the work they are doing.
“Not only does Veewon speak beyond ethnic lines, he lives and works in Delhi. So his activism reaches a wider spectrum of people instead of the echo-chamber of the north eastern states,” Loitongbam told HuffPost India.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill, several activist from north east Indian states told HuffPost India over various interviews, seemed like BJP’s gift to the pro-Hindutva masses in other parts of India, especially the northern and central states. Veewon’ activism in a political centre like Delhi comes with the risk of amplifying the communal, anti-Muslim nature of the bill more than the BJP’s liking.
“Or, by arresting Veewon the BJP leader of north east could also be trying to please their bosses in Delhi and show them all the work they are doing,” Loitongbam added, pointing out that BJP president Amit Shah has indulged in extensive chest thumping about the Bill rejected by a majority of people in the north-eastern states.
The activist explained that Veewon’s arrest at the general lack of outrage over it is symptomatic of culture of repression that thrives in north-eastern states. “When something like this happens to students from other states, it’s easier for the middle class to identify with them,” he said, adding that the alienation of the north east also makes students like Veewon vulnerable to the BJP’s autocratic ways.