Manipur journalist Kishore Chandra Wangkhem is spending Christmas in jail. Sandhya Ravishankar highlights why we need to care.
Ranjita Elangbam is very apprehensive. She met her husband, Manipur based journalist Kishore Chandra Wangkhem in hospital on Thursday last and she says he shares her fears. “He has been locked up with hardcore criminals. He is trying to be brave but I can see he is afraid,” she said. “He was feeling unwell so they brought him to hospital and that is where I met him. He told me that he is not being allowed to say a word,” said the mother of two daughters aged five and one.
Wangkhem was sent to the Manipur Central Prison in Sajiwa on 27 November. An FIR was first filed against him under the draconian sedition law – Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code – on 21 November.
His crime was that he had used “abusive language” against the Chief Minister of Manipur in four videos posted on Facebook, railed against him for celebrating Rani Jhansi while “ignoring the freedom fighters of Manipur” and for likening the Chief Minister Biren Singh to a “puppet” of the Prime Minister of India. Wangkhem, as evident from the videos posted on his Facebook account, also showed the middle finger in derision. Wangkhem, a journalist with local cable channel ISTV had reportedly resigned a few days before he uploaded the videos.
Wangkhem sought bail and the Chief Judicial Magistrate, on 26 November granted it, ruling that there was no case made out for Sedition.
In his order, the Magistrate stated – “I am satisfied there exist materials against the accused person for expressing his opinion in very undiplomatic words and terms and gesture. However, I find the said words, terms and gesture used by the accused and the context in which they are used, and the comment made by the accused person cannot be termed seditious to attract offence u/s 124-A IPC. It appears to be mere expression of opinion against the public conduct of a public figure in a street language. 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 of India and Chief Minister of Manipur, which cannot be equated with an attack to invite people to violence against the Govt. of India or Manipur to topple it.”
“The government, especially its functionary like Prime Minister or Chief Minister cannot be so sensitive as to take offence upon expression of opinion by its citizen which may be given very nicely by using proper words or indecently by using some vulgar terms.”
But a day later, the police went after Wangkhem again. This time, they had a remand order from a District Magistrate who opined that Wangkhem “would resume activities which are prejudicial to the security of the state and to the maintenance of public order… and that therefore, he should be prevented from commission of such prejudicial activities through an alternative preventive measure.”
The immediate future looks bleak for the journalist. His lawyer Chongtham Victor has filed a quash petition and Habeas Corpus before the Manipur High Court. The judge who heard the petition has adjourned the case to 01 February, issuing notice to the respondents, i.e. the State government of Manipur and the police.
An Advisory Board which is supposed to review all cases under Section 124-A of the IPC, will convene only three months after initial remand – which again means that Wangkhem has no hope of being heard until February.
Retired Supreme Court judge and former Chairman of the Press Council of India Markandeya Katju advised Wangkhem’s lawyer Victor to make an effort at getting a Letter Petition through to the Chief Justice of the Manipur High Court. The Letter Petition, signed by Wangkhem’s wife Ranjita is basically a plea to the Chief Justice directly to take up Wangkhem’s case suo motu and ensure that justice is delivered. This petition has been given to the Registrar General’s office. But the Registrar General is away on holiday. It is only he who can pass it to the Chief Justice. Once it reaches the Chief Justice, it is left to his discretion to take up the case suo motu or reject it.
The Supreme Court is on vacation for Christmas and New Year and there is no vacation bench either.
In all, the legal odds are stacked heavily against Wangkhem.
Trying Time For Journalists
What is worse is that a section of Manipur’s journalist fraternity has chosen to take a stand against Wangkhem, effectively ensuring that he is isolated in his battle against the State. Pradip Panjoubam, editor of Imphal Free Press and senior journalist Linda Chhakchhuak are among a handful of journalists who have taken up cudgels for the jailed journalist.
In an editorial, Panjoubam criticised the NSA charge as ‘vengefull overkill’ and asked, “The NSA arguably goes against the spirit of humanitarian law envisaged by Article 22 of the constitution which calls for a presumption of innocence of an accused until proven guilty, for it allows for award of jail terms to suspects for up to one year without trial. Can this act be invoked for a mere Facebook post, however vulgar that post may be?”
Many other journalist associations and unions from across the country have indeed issued statements condemning Wangkhem’s arrest under Sedition laws and demanding his immediate release. The more influential and older associations such as The Editors’ Guild have chosen to remain silent.
But statements (including one from the All Manipur Students’ Union) in the face of a determined State government and a prejudiced State police have not had much effect. And in times of autocracy, journalists must come together for the greater cause of free and fair journalism in the country. It is time to reinvent and innovate in order to ensure that rights of journalists are protected and they are allowed to carry out their duties without a cloud of fear hanging over them.
Many say that Wangkhem should not have used abusive language or shown his middle finger and that he should have “behaved better”. That argument is neither here nor there.
The only question that matters is whether Wangkhem made any comments that amount to sedition – to incite violence against the State government in order to topple it. The answer to that question is very clearly in the negative.
Wangkhem may have been a lot more abusive than a number of us or a lot less abusive than some others amongst us, but he did not make any remarks or comments that amount to sedition.
The interpretation of sedition was clearly defined by the Supreme Court in the historic case of Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar in 1962, in which the Bench, while upholding the Constitutional freedom of speech and expression ordered – “In other words, any written or spoken words, etc., which have implicit in them the idea of subverting Government by violent means, which are compendiously included in the term ‘revolution’, have been made penal by the section in question. But the section has taken care to indicate clearly that strong words used to express disapprobation of the measures of Government with a view to their improvement or alteration by lawful means would not come within the section. Similarly, comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of actions of the Government, without exciting those feelings which generate the inclination to cause public disorder by acts of violence, would not be penal. In other words, disloyalty to Government established by law is not the same thing as commenting in strong terms upon the measures or acts of Government, or its agencies, so as to ameliorate the condition of the people or to secure the cancellation or alteration of those acts or measures by lawful means, that is to say, without exciting those feelings of enmity and disloyalty which imply excitement to public disorder or the use of violence.”
This was reinforced recently by the Supreme Court in 2016 in another case filed by NGO Common Cause. “The Supreme Court held that only a “violent revolution” against the government attracts the charge of sedition.” A free expression of disapprobation against the ruling government’s action with an intention to better the condition of the people is not treason, it had held. Justice Mishra said every word of the Constitution Bench still holds true. Nothing has changed, nothing should, he said” – according to a report in The Hindu on a hearing in this case.
So the law is clear – incitement to “violent revolution” is the only possible cause for sedition charges. Wangkhem did neither. But the State government and the police of Manipur have abused the law in an effort to muzzle Wangkhem and prevent him from carrying out his duty as a journalist and a guardian of the truth.
Wangkhem is only the latest case in a series of such abuse of power by the State. Journalist Abhijit Iyer-Mitra was jailed under sedition laws for 44 days and released on bail in early December after the government “pardoned” him. His crime was to post satirical tweets about the government.
So who is next? Unless journalists join hands and fight this common cause, it could be anyone tomorrow.