The abuse of National Security Act (NSA) by the present Government of Manipur under Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for criticising the party leaders and the government has been foiled by the Supreme Court of India.
Manipur’s political activist Erendro Leichombam and journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem have been sharply critical to the BJP and Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren’s Government of Manipur. For their critical defiance they were detained under the National Security Act (NSA) since May 17 this year. The NSA empowers the government to detain a person for 12 months without filing chargesheet and trial.
However, they have been released on July 19 and July 23 respectively by separate orders of the Supreme Court of India followed by another by the High Court of Manipur which gave the same ruling as the Supreme Court’s.
The Supreme Court on July 19 directed the release of Manipur’s political activist Erendro who was booked under NSA for his criticism of BJP leaders on use of cow dung and cow urine as cures for COVID-19, by 5 pm of the day, saying he cannot be put in jail for even a night.
The bench of Justice D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah said that his continued detention will be in violation of his fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
Reports quoted Advocate Shadan Farasat, appearing for L Raghumani Singh, father of political activist Erendro Leichombam, as saying that the preventive detention clause has been used in a case where not even simple penal provisions are required. The activist has only criticised BJP leaders purportedly advocating cow dung and cow urine as cures for COVID-19.
The plea has challenged the preventive detention of the political activist under the National Security Act (NSA), alleging that it has been done solely to punish him for his criticism of BJP leaders purportedly advocating cow dung and cow urine as cures for COVID-19.
The statement on Facebook post on May 13 was made in the context of the death of the President of the Manipur BJP Prof. Saikhom Tikendra due to COVID-19, as a criticism of the unscientific position taken and misinformation being spread by several BJP politicians regarding cow urine and cow dung being effective in preventing/treating COVID-19, the plea said, adding that the post was deleted soon after being posted on May 13 itself.
The petition also alleged that for this criticism Erendro has spent some days in custody pursuant to criminal cases initiated against him and thereafter in preventive detention after grant of bail.
The present case is a shocking instance of misuse of preventive detention law to stifle completely innocuous speech that is fully constitutionally protected and was made in public interest – Erendro, a Manipuri political activist, has been preventively detained solely to punish him for his criticism of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders for advocating cow dung and cow urine as cures for COVID-19, the plea alleged.
It has sought quashing of May 17 detention order and the grounds of detention issued by District Magistrate, Imphal West District.
In a follow up ruling, the High Court of Manipur on July 23 ordered to release Manipur’s journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem who was detained under NSA since May 17 for similar Facebook post on the death of Manipur BJP President.
Following the release of political activist Erendro Leichombam who was booked under the same charges by an order from the Supreme Court, Elangbam Ranjita, wife of detained journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem, in a letter to the High Court of Manipur on July 21 demanded the immediate release of his husband, who has been arrested under the National Security Act (NSA) over a Facebook post.
In her letter petition addressed to the Chief Justice of the High Court of Manipur, Elangbam Ranjita recalled that her husband was arrested on May 13, 2021, by the Imphal Police Station for uploading a statement on Facebook — “Santhi Sanyungna Yadrabo oh!!! RIP # Rashikang Kangyet Hayeng Nga Chaani”
In the petition, Elangbam Ranjita said that her husband was produced before the Duty Magistrate on May 14, 2021 and remanded to police custody till May 17, 2021. The Imphal West CJM granted bail on May 17. However, during his police custody and soon after the bail was granted (after rejecting the remand prayer made by three police station simultaneously) by the concerned Chief Judicial magistrate, Imphal West, Manipur, he was slapped with National security Act along with Erendro Leichombam, who was also been arrested relating with a Facebook post of similar nature.
Ranjita, in the letter, urged the authorities to ‘release him expeditiously for the ends of justice’. The High Court of Manipur on July 22 admitted the ‘letter petition’ filed by the wife of journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem.
The division bench comprising Chief Justice PV Sanjay Kumar and Justice Kh Nobin Singh in the order of the High Court of Manipur on July 23 observed that “On the face of it, we find no distinction or difference between the case of the petitioner’s husband and that of Erendro Leichombam. Both of them put up similar Facebook posts, critical of the utility of cow dung and cow urine in treating Coronavirus. As they stand identically situated, we are of the opinion that the continued incarceration of the petitioner’s husband would be as much a violation of Article 21 of the Constitution, as it was in the case of Erendro Leichombam”.
The High Court of Manipur also observed that there shall be an interim direction to the respondents to ensure that the petitioner’s husband Kishorchandra is released forthwith and in any event, not later than 5 pm on July 23 upon his furnishing a personal release bond for a sum of ₹ 1000/, if his further incarceration is not required in connection with any other case.
The additional public prosecutor has sought time to file a reply if necessary. “We accordingly adjourn the matter to 24.08.2021 to enable him to do so. Advance copy of the reply, if any, shall be supplied to the counsel opposite,” said the order
It will be significant to recall how many times and why the two have been arrested and detained by the State Government.
Erendro Leichombam, who is a post-graduate from Harvard University and worked with the World Bank and UNDP, was first booked on May 25, 2018 for allegedly uploading a video of “some Bihari youngsters threatening Manipuris”.
The second case was filed on September 27, 2019, after a video showing Erendro protesting against the government by way of throwing eggs on the posters of the prime minister, the Manipur chief minister and some officials of Manipur University in connection with the agitation to remove the then Vice Chancellor Prof. A. P. Pandey.
Another Facebook post landed him in trouble when the police slapped sedition charges against him on July 25, 2020. In the “derogatory post”, Erendro had allegedly mentioned the word “slave” in the caption of a photograph that showed Rajya Sabha MP Sanajaoba Leishemba, the titular king of Uttra Sanglen, shaking hands with Union minister Amit Shah.
This FIR was lodged following a complaint to the police by the secretary general of Uttra Sanglen, which claimed Erendro’s post was with a view to solicit hatred and incite riots against the MP.
In the fourth case, Erendro was booked for allegedly misappropriating the complainant’s property. According to the FIR, Erendro had received grants to commence a training centre for skill development in Imphal. However, he shut down the centre due to pandemic and at the same time refused to return the equipment he had purchased with the grants provided to him by the complainant, a voluntary organisation working in the skill development space.
Kishorchandra Wangkhem was first arrested in November 2018 for uploading a video on social media criticising Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren’s government. He was booked for sedition and NSA was also slapped on him before he was released in April 2019. The high court quashed the sedition charges against him.
However, he was again arrested in September 2020 on the same charges and for allegedly promoting enmity between different groups on social media. Kishorchandra was released in December 2020.
Notably, the National Security Act empowers the Centre or a state to detain a person as preventive measure, if he or she is found to be prejudicial to national security. The government can also detain them from disrupting public order or for maintenance of supplies and service essential to the community.
The maximum period for detention is 12 months, but this term can be extended if the government comes across fresh evidence.
However, the impugned grounds of Erendro’s detention were entirely irrelevant because, by their nature, the said activities bore no nexus with “security of the state” or “public order”, Erendro’s father claimed in the plea.
From the two cases of NSA detaining Erendro Leichombam and Kishorchandra Wangkhem and following the court orders quashing the detention orders, the State Government needs to learn lesson not to slap NSA on the citizens for the activities that doesn’t prejudicial to the national security and disrupt the public order.
Senior Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics