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Law

'Can't Be Kept in Jail for Even a Day': SC Orders Immediate Release of Manipuri Activist

Erendro Leichombam was arrested and charged under the National Security Act for a Facebook post saying cow urine doesn't cure COVID-19 and criticising BJP leaders who spread misinformation.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court has ruled that Manipuri activist Erendro Leichombam, who was arrested and charged under the National Security Act for a Facebook post saying cow urine doesn’t cure COVID-19 and criticising BJP leaders who spread misinformation, must be released immediately.

“He cannot be kept in jail even for a day. We will order his release today,” a bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and M.R. Shah said, according to Bar and Bench.

“We are of the view that continued detention of the petitioner would be a violation of right ti life and personal liberty under Article 21. We accordingly direct that the petitioner shall be released forthwith subject to interim directions of this court and subject to further orders and him filing a personal bond of Rs. 1,000,” the court ordered.

The order has to be complied with on or before 5 pm today, the bench insisted.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta wanted the matter to be listed tomorrow, but the bench said it would provide interim relief today.

In his plea before the Supreme Court, Erendro’s father L. Raghumani Singh said that the BJP was looking to take revenge on the activist for his critical Facebook posts. “Erendro, a Manipuri political activist, has been preventively detained solely to punish him for his criticism of Bhartiya Janta Party (“BJP”) leaders for advocating cow-dung and cow-urine as cures for COVID,” the petition said.

Speaking to The Wire, Supreme Court lawyer for the petitioner Shadan Farasat said, “By directing his immediate release, prima facie the SC has agreed with the contention of the petitioner that this was not at all a case where the power of preventive detention could have been exercised.” The matter will be heard by the apex court tomorrow too.

Erendro Leichombam, a 2012 graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, has been locked up in Manipur’s Sajjwa jail since May 13 along with Imphal-based journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem for their Facebook comments condoling the death of the state BJP president S. Tikendra Singh due to COVID-19 on May 13. In these posts, they also highlighted that while Singh’s party members are advocating cow urine and cow dung as cures for the virus, it is science and common sense that could save people from the pandemic.

Also read: Pegasus Project: How Phones of Journalists, Ministers, Activists May Have Been Used to Spy On Them

Prior to slapping the NSA on both of them, the state police accused them of causing ‘social unrest’ for pointing out that science and common sense could save one from COVID-19, not cow urine and cow dung as circulated by several BJP men.

On May 17, a local court in Imphal released them on bail but advocate Victor Chongtham said before he could ready the relevant papers to seek their release from police custody, the state slapped the NSA on them, leading the Imphal West district magistrate, Th. Kirankumar, to detain them. Since then, the duo has been lodged at Sajjwa jail on the outskirts of Imphal.

The district magistrate, Th. Kirankumar, in his official letters to Kishorchandra and Erendro on May 19, listed out a number of reasons as to why he had ordered their detention under NSA.

For Erendro, Kirankumar began with Manipur police’s arrest of him in May 2018. The DM cited that among his crimes then was:

“One video clip (that was) uploaded depicting protest by you and team against the existing government by way of throwing eggs on posters of the Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi, the then VC (vice chancellor) of Manipur University, Shri A P Pandey, Shri N. Biren Singh, honourable chief minister of Manipur, Shri Syamkesho, Registrar of Manipur University and Shri Yugindro, pro-VC of Manipur University which are displayed on a gate wall”.

Citing Erendro’s latest Facebook upload in which he says, “The cure for Corona is not cow dung and cow urine. The cure is science and common sense. Professor ji RIP”, Kirankumar said:

“Your very statement brings or attempts to bring hatred or contempt, or incites or attempts to incite disaffection towards the government established law in India, recites or utters obscene words in social media platform, thereby wilfully insulted and outraged the religious feeling and sentiments of the BJP workers and family members on the occasion of demise of president of BJP Manipur Pradesh namely late Professor S. Tikendra Singh…”

This was not the first time the N. Biren Singh government has come after Erendro. In July 2020, the state police had filed a case of sedition (124A) against Erendro for a Facebook comment. Though the state police hadn’t specified then which remark it had found problematic, it was suspected that Erendro’s comment, minai macha (son of a servant), to a photo featuring S. Leishemba, Manipur’s erstwhile king and now a Rajya Sabha member with the support of the BJP, bowing in front of BJP national leader Amit Shah, must have angered the Biren Singh government.

Prior to that, in May 2018, Erendro was arrested for posting a video on Facebook which the police claimed amounted to “promoting enmity between different groups and criminal intimidation”. He was released by a local court in June 2018.