By Geeta Seshu
The arrest of Manipuri student leader Thokchom Veewon on sedition charges for his Facebook posts on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) is yet another example of the jittery response of the state to any expression of dissent. Thokchom Veewon was charged with inciting violence by his online posts. Incredibly, these posts were filed from Delhi, over 2000 Kms from the site of action during a complete shutdown of broadcast and internet in the state of Manipur!
Thokchom Veewon, a former president of Manipur Students’ Association Delhi (MSAD), was picked up by a joint team of Manipur and Delhi police from his residence in Delhi on February 15. He is currently in custody in Delhi and will be produced in a court in Manipur on or before Feb 19.
In a press conference in Imphal, K Meghchandra, Superintendent of Police Imphal East district, said that Thokchom and his associates were planning to “spread hatred and incited violence” during the agitation against the Bill in Manipur. Thokchom’s Facebook posts have been cited as evidence of his incitement to violence. In the press conference, the police chief said that one post ‘urged the people to intensify agitation, burnt properties and even confront with some political parties when there was a curfew in Imphal’ and in another post, said that the ‘right to self-determination was the only solution.’
Thokchom’s Facebook posts, still online on his Facebook page, (posted on Feb 12 at 12.27 and 18.20) highlight the protests in Manipur (including pictures of a nude protest as well as videos of protests) and the police crackdown. The last posts made are on Feb 12 at 18.57 to say that police visited his parents home in Imphal and threatened them:
Other posts state ‘India take back your democracy’ and ‘Self determination the only way forward’.
Thokchom Veewon has been vocal in his criticism of the CAB as well as of the arrest of Kishorechandra Wangkhem under the NSA. He also addressed a public meeting on Wangkhem’s arrest in New Delhi on Jan 29:
Police say he will be charged with sedition as they are all set to apply the draconian, colonial era law that should have been removed from the statute books years ago. It also goes completely against the Supreme Court’s reading down of sedition in the Kedar Nath judgement, which clearly states that it can only be applied if there is an imminent violence or incitement to offence.
Going by the statement of the police chief in the press conference, there does seem to be an attempt to make out a case that Thokchom’s Facebook posts were inflammatory or incendiary. But this seems quite implausible. Thokchom was presumably sitting in front of his computer in New Delhi, over 2000 km away from Imphal and making these posts. Protests were already in full swing for weeks before and there were many citizens’ groups protesting over the CAB.
There was no incident of violence in New Delhi resulting from his post or any other. So how could his posts have had any impact at all in Imphal when the media – both broadcast and online – were gagged from February 11, 2019?
An order issued on February 11 imposed blanket gag orders on transmission of protests or agitation in any form till further orders! On Feb 12, Sec 144 was imposed in parts of Imphal and an internet shut down in the entire state was imposed from midnight of February 12 to February 16, 2019, ostensibly to curb protests over the CAB!
Perhaps the police seek to make an example of this selective arrest of some of the spokespersons of the protests, but undoubtedly, the arrest is a silencing of an important voice of dissent on the situation in Manipur.
Its also of a piece with the manner in which police quickly pick up facebook posts from citizens, journalists and activists that are critical of or ridicule India (as in the case of Kamal Shukla) and charge them with sedition, a colonial-era provision that still remains on India’s statute books more than 70 years after Independence!
The police chief also said he was booked for expressing support for the right to self-determination. But since when has the expression of support for self-determination been criminalised? Is it legally prohibited? By which provisions?
The demand itself for self-determination has increasingly come up in the context of Kashmir and is a hugely contested one, clouded by intense political and emotional sentiments. Interestingly, as Balraj Puri wrote in this EPW article, (Sovereignty, Territorial Integrity and Right of Self-Determination): India was among those countries which had insisted on adding recognition of right of all peoples to self-determination to the International Bill of Human Rights which the United Nations adopted in 1976 to give a legal form to the rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the General Assembly in 1948.
In another excellent commentary on the issue, arising from the JNU case, Srinivas Burra outlines the demands for the right to self-determination and says that ‘India’s constitutional and statutory position does not prohibit the possibility of claims for right to self-determination and secession of territories from India’. Besides, he makes the important point that it is ‘not legally prohibited to demand its expansive application. And, it cannot be legally prohibited because it is only in the political realm that these matters are settled’.
While these may seem academic discussions about the fervent protests on the ground, the crack down on free expression and voicing of dissent, applying charges of sedition and allegedly spreading disharmony which may not stand legal scrutiny, will only serve to suppress peoples’ sentiments instead of allowing them to be aired freely and openly discussed and debated. This certainly does not bode well for democracy.