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Kishorechand Wangkhem's case: A threat to national security or an anguished cry for the recognition of Manipur's history?

Sophia Rajkumari *



The recent arrest and detention of the Imphal based journalist Mr. Kishorechand Wangkhem for calling the Chief Minister of Manipur, N. Biren Singh, a puppet of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has again raised questions about freedom of speech in the world's largest democracy.

While Article 19(1) of India's constitution guarantees freedom of speech, it also imposes some restrictions through Article 19(2) - including those related to security of the state, public order and incitement of offences, among others.

According to press reports, Mr. Wangkhem uploaded a video on his Facebook page on November 19, 2018 criticizing the BJP-RSS and the Manipur state government. In the video he is alleged to have described Mr. Singh as a puppet of Mr. Modi and Hindutva, and expressed annoyance with the state government for organizing a function to mark the birth anniversary of Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, who fought the British during the 1857 rebellion.

He also apparently stated that Rani Lakshmi Bai had nothing to do with Manipur's freedom. Thereafter he was dismissed from his job by the local TV channel ISTV and arrested by the police. After being released on bail, he was rearrested and has since been detained under the National Security Act for sedition - and will potentially remain under detention without trial for up to a year. The reports further mentioned that the police alleged the journalist had used foul language to condemn the Chief Minister and his government.

Based on the above facts, it is quite clear that while Mr. Wangkem's outburst may perhaps be intemperate, it certainly does not seem to qualify as sedition and he can hardly be deemed a threat to national security.

Numerous judgements of the Supreme Court of India make it amply clear that mere criticism of the government does not necessarily disturb public order, and further, that ordinary breaches of public order which don't involve any danger to the state cannot be deemed to fall within the purview of the restrictions under Article 19(2).

The matter raises some important questions, which ought be answered by the Central and State Governments, as well as the management of ISTV and civil society in Manipur, namely:

1. Does seeking recognition of one's existence and history even if this is done in an inelegant or abusive manner or contrary to political etiquette - amount to sedition?

2. Does the liberty of Mr. Wangkhem pose a clear and present danger to the security of the state and nation? Are the state and nation so weak that they cannot withstand the criticism ill tempered or otherwise of an individual who arguably has hardly any influence?

3. What is the objective basis for charging Mr. Wangkem under the provisions of the NSA that demonstrate the danger posed by him and can the State Government file an affidavit on oath to affirm that they have sought sound legal opinion before depriving him of his liberty?

4. Is this case being used to create a deterrent effect, and if so why? Will all critics of the government now meet a similar fate?

5. Did ISTV issue a show cause notice and follow due process before terminating the services of Mr. Wangkhem? Was ISTV management pressurized in this regard by the Manipur authorities?

6. Why was Mr. Wangkem re-arrested under the NSA after being granted bail in the initial case filed against him under the Indian Penal Code (IPC)? Why wasn't the IPC proceeding sufficient?

7. Why is there no mass protest from the civil society? Does this not impact the public?

For several decades since India became an independent nation, the Manipuri language was officially taught in the Bengali script in Manipur's schools it is only in the last couple of decades that the shift was made to Manipur's native Meitei Mayek script. This meant that multiple generations of Manipuris, including myself, were deprived of the ability to understand and decipher our traditional texts and scriptures in their original form.

History as prescribed in our school textbooks hardly alluded to Manipur or its rich legacy dating back nearly two millenia where Manipur subsisted as an independent kingdom. Instead, it focused more on the Indian freedom struggle, mentioning Manipur as a footnote in the context of Subash Chandra Bose's Indian National Army which fought alongside the Japanese forces against the British and Indian Armies in the Battle of Imphal during the Second World War.

To this day, most educated Indians that I meet are profoundly unaware of Manipur's history or even it's geographical location, capital or culture and how these are distinct from other parts of North Eastern India and South East Asia. Racial stereotypes continue to abound compounding the problem and leading to anguish, which is sometimes directed at the Central Government and its political leadership.

Given this context, it is understandable that many Manipuris do seek a more detailed recognition of Manipur's own history, and seek to distinguish it from events in other parts of India in the era before 1947 when Manipur was a separate political entity.

Accordingly, a view may be taken that the State Government should prioritize the commemoration of local historical figures such as General Thangal, Tikendrajit, Lingthoigambi and Paona Brajbasi rather than those from other parts of India such as Rani Lakshmibai, who while being deserving of honor, didn't significantly influence Manipur. This is no different from other Indian states for example Chatrapati Shivaji being commemorated in Maharashtra or Tipu Sultan in Karnataka.

People react and express themselves in varied ways. Mr. Wangkhem reacted aggressively on social media, but the basis for his view is quite fundamental. At the same time, it is patently ridiculous to argue that his outburst or abusive style threatened national security.

One is free to agree or disagree with him and to condemn his unsavory language but there is no basis to persecute him. Only a weak or deeply insecure state needs to do that. In any durable society, one would simply like or dislike his Facebook post and move on. Accordingly, it is sad that Mr. Wangkhem - a husband and father of 2 little girls is being subjected to this apparent abuse of state power.

In the interests of honoring India's constitution and showing some understanding of Manipur's unique heritage, it would be best if Mr. Wangkem is released at the earliest and the charges against him dropped. Politically too, his detention is likely to backfire and it is best that damage control measures be undertaken at the earliest.


* Sophia Rajkumari wrote this article for e-pao.net
The writer can be contacted at sophirajkumari0408(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on February 12, 2019.



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