Manipur’s COVID-19 fight has brought to the fore the best as well as the worst within itself. In the course of a month or so of the first of the state’s two positive cases so far showing up, much has already been revealed. On one hand are the paranoid, selfish, communal and hate-mongering section made loud by the advent of social media, and on the other a silent majority naturally gifted with an all-embracing outlook, ever willing to come out and give a lift to the lame and weak.
If this divide can broadly characterise psychology of the people, at the government level too, another split personality has already become quite apparent. In terms of fighting the spread of the pandemic, like the rest of Northeast, the state has been quite successful. The state has seen just two cases, the first, a student returning home from London and the other, a participant of the Tabilghi Jamaat congregation at Nizamuddin, New Delhi. Both have now recovered and as the one and half months of lockdown come to a conclusion, the state can now reasonably claim to be clean of the virus, at least for now. Manipur began its lockdown on March 21, five days ahead of the national lockdown, partly in anticipation of public unrest at the selection of Manipur’s titular king, Leishemba Sanajaoba as the BJP candidate for the Rajya Sabha election then scheduled for March 26 but has since been postponed indefinitely. Obviously, the state’s landlocked geographical remoteness has also helped.
But amidst this onerous battle, which to say the least is far from over, the bipolar nature of the split in the government’s character is also becoming stark. On one hand, the state government earned praises for the assistance extended to the public under lockdown in the state as well as those stranded outside the state, but on the other, it has also been on an unrestrained spree of smothering voices of dissent. Even suggestions on where the government might be going wrong in handling the crisis have earned harsh responses.
This intolerance of criticism has been an uneasy trait of this government since coming to power three and half years ago, long before the pandemic, but the cover provided by the crisis has only accentuated this draconian inclination. The strategy has been two-pronged. If an established media organisation is perceived to be the offender, the familiar strategy is SLAPP or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation as it is now more familiarly known. In this the government files a lawsuit against detractors with the intent to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost both monetary as well as their scare time and resources. A local newspaper Imphal Free Press is facing this plight for a report that suggested a celebration of victory by Manipur Chief Minister, N. Biren Singh, for being ranked as 3rd best in one episode of a TV channel’s competition of chief ministers was premature, as he did not figure at all in subsequent episodes of the same competition.
When it is an individual newsperson, or blogger doing social media commentaries, the retaliation has increasingly been unwarranted arrests under draconian laws such as UAPA and even NSA. The case of TV Anchor Kishorechand Wangkhem is well known. He was arrested in November 2018 first under sedition charges for using profanities in criticising the CM and for references to the BJP as a party of cow urine addicts. When the sedition charge was rejected by the court as untenable, he was rearrested under NSA. Only on the Manipur High Court’s intervention Wangkhem was released five months later in April 2019. In December 2019, another young and popular Youtube blogger, R.K. Ichan Thoibi, was arrested for doing an irreverent satire of the CM. She was released after 10 days in custody on bail.
In September 2018, another youth activist of a political party founded by iconic hunger striker Irom Sharmila, PRJA (People Resurgence and Justice Alliance), Popilal NIngthoujam, was arrested for throwing eggs on the portraits of the PM and CM in a protest against a police raid at the Manipur University. He was released on bail after signing a PR bond for Rs. 70,000, a month later.
This repression has only intensified during the COVID-19 lockdown. So far, five people were taken by surprise by police visits. On April 8, Chingiz Khan, a JNU research scholar from Manipur, was arrested at his home in Mayang Imphal, West Imphal district. This was after a Manipuri translation of an article he had co-written in English for The Pioneer, New Delhi in 2019 on the marginalisation of Pangals (Manipuri Muslims) under the BJP government, was published in a Manipuri daily. Devabrata (Bobby) Roy Laifungbam—a doctor by training who runs the NGO Centre for Organisation, Research and Education—was picked up by the police for a Facebook post advising the CM not to waste valuable time and resources politicking and instead concentrate on the fight against COVID-19. Konsam Victor Singh too was detained after he published a Facebook post enquiring about the amount the CM had contributed to the CM Relief Fund during the pandemic. Takhenchangbam Shadishkanta and Phajaton Kangjrakpam of Youth’s Forum for Protection of Human Rights were arrested for a press release critical of the government’s management of COVID-19 and for a plan to build a quarantine centre by requisitioning a stretch of paddy fields.
These arrests and repressive measures have prompted Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights in Manipur and United Nations (CSSHR), a conglomerate of nine human rights organisations in the state, to make an earnest appeal on April 4 to the National Human Rights Commission for intervention.
But it’s not only common folk bearing the brunt for speaking out. Even deputy chief minister Yumnam Joykumar was stripped of all his portfolios on a dispute arising out of rice quota earmarked for MLAs for distribution as COVID-19 relief to the people. Joykumar allegedly made irreverent remarks against the CM when some women in his constituency complained to him about not receiving the promised amount of rations during the lockdown. Indeed, free rations received by beneficiaries in different constituencies have been varied in amount for whatever the reason.
Media in Manipur today therefore is left badly mauled like never before, first by the COVID pandemic and the lockdown to counter it, which has depleted their businesses to a dangerous low, putting smaller organisation in existential crisis. Over and above these come these repressive measures aimed at silencing dissenting voices. This is furthermore coupled with strategies of co-option of influential sections of the media fraternity through official favours and expensive gifts.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author