19/12/2016 5:54 PM IST | Updated 23/12/2016 8:56 AM IST

The Media's Silence Is Allowing Freedom Of Speech To Be Trampled In Cong-Ruled Manipur

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Pedestrians walk past temporary roadblocks on the outskirts of Imphal on December 20, 2016, during an ongoing economic blockade led by Naga militant groups in the north-eastern Indian state of Manipur.

It is common knowledge that the Northeastern states have not been part of the mainstream Indian discourse since they became a part of India. We've all heard of instances of racism in Indian cities against people from the Northeast, often with undertones of them not being Indian. Though I had known that the Northeast did not get enough attention in the nation's media or in its politics, the true extent of this didn't hit me until recently.

I have been living in Manipur for two months and managing a part of the BJP's campaign for the upcoming Manipur Legislative Assembly elections. For the past one month, the state of Manipur has been under siege. An organisation called the United Naga Council (UNC) has blocked a national highway, which is the lifeline of Manipur, and through which the state gets most of its essential commodities including food grains and fuel. The agitation was started by the Naga organisation in opposition to the creation of two new districts in the state, as they asserted that no part of Naga-inhabited territory should be taken away to form the new districts.

If an entire state under siege did not make national headlines, what hope is there for an instance of suppression of freedom of speech to get country-wide coverage?

The conditions in Manipur deteriorated fast once the blockade came into force. The price of essential commodities skyrocketed with petrol costing over ₹300 per litre and LPG cylinders going for over ₹2000 in the black market. If this happened in most other states, I am sure there would have been national outrage. Relegated in a corner of India, the incident has barely gotten attention in the national media. The politicians of the state have also failed to resolve the issue or provide it with the attention that it deserves.

The media plays a very important role in society. It is responsible for highlighting issues of importance so that the governments act upon them. The media is also responsible for scrutiny, so that shortcomings and instances of wrongdoing by the government are highlighted. To a certain extent, voters decide whom to vote for based on what the media reports, making it essential for a free and fair media to cover issues in a thorough manner.

This has not happened in Manipur, or in most states of Northeast India. The national media has ignored the region, and the same politicians have ruled and pilfered the public coffers for decades. Manipur has had the same Chief Minister for 15 years now, and under his rule there have been innumerable cases of corruption and violations of human rights. The High Court of Manipur quashes recruitment drives conducted by the state Public Service Commission almost every year due to irregularities, and the rest of the country barely hears about it.

I got to witness the helplessness of people in Manipur through two instances now. Once through the lack of attention that the blockade has received and then again through an attack that the administration of Manipur mounted against a few supporters of the BJP.

On the night of 4 December 2016 the Lamphel police arrested three people, including the owner of an advertising agency under sections 153(A), 171 and 506 of the Indian Penal Code. The primary charge is that of "Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony."

The media must act as a protector of free speech and condemn instances such as this where the government misuses its authority to quell criticism.

These charges were brought against these three individuals for putting up a hoarding critical of the Congress regime and its Chief Minister in a legally rented spot. The hoarding did not make references to any community or promote enmity between groups in any manner whatsoever. They were only critical of the misrule and failures of the Congress government under the leadership of the Chief Minister, Okram Ibobi Singh.

The hoardings talked about the rampant corruption, unemployment, water scarcity, fake encounters, drug use and other issues that plague the state of Manipur under the Congress government. You can look at the design of the hoarding yourself and decide if it promotes animosity between any group.

Hoarding against the Congress government and the incumbent Chief Minister

This was a clear instance of an incumbent government abusing its powers to silence its critics. The police of the state was used as an instrument of intimidation and legitimate political opposition was suppressed. In most places, the national media could be counted upon to raise a voice in support of people's freedom of speech and condemning the government's attempt to silence opposition. The lack of national media attention for the state though gives me little hope that this incident will get covered. If an entire state under siege was not national headline, what hope is there for this instance of suppression of freedom of speech to get national coverage?

The incumbent Congress government had previously used the Municipality to take down hoardings critical of it, and I have been trying to figure out what anyone can do to prevent this from happening. Once the Model Code of Conduct is in place the Election Commission protects one from these assaults, but until then it's all at the mercy of the state's administration that is directly answerable to the incumbent Chief Minister.

The courts are always an option but with the pendency of cases in our judicial system it is hardly likely that the case would be settled before the elections. This only leaves the media, which must act as a protector of free speech and condemn instances such as this where the government misuses its authority to quell criticism.

Contact me on Twitter @INshivams

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