Home Ministry Orders Probe Into Assam Editors Critical of BJP's Citizenship Bill

The action is based on a complaint by a Hindu right-wing outfit with links to the RSS.

New Delhi: The home ministry has sought a probe into four Assamese editors and a news channel based on a complaint by a Hindu right-wing outfit with links to the RSS. The Assam director general of police, Kuladhar Saikia and the commissioner and secretary (home and political) Ashutosh Agnihotri have been asked to carry out the investigation.

Those named in the complaint letter to the ministry by Vinay Joshi of Legal Rights Observatory (LRO) are Nitumoni Saikia, the editor-in-chief of the popular Assamese news channel Pratidin Time; Manjit Mahanta, former editor of Axomiya Pratidin; Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, the editor of Assamese news channel Prag News and Afrida Hussain, the editor of the web news portal InsideNE. The Assamese chapter of the TV18 channel has also been named.

Saikia, Bhuyan, Hussain and Mahanta have all been quite vocal about their support to the widespread protest in the Brahmaputra Valley against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill brought by the Narendra Modi government.

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Saikia, Bhuyan and Mahanta have also been vocal critics of the BJP-led state government’s policies for a while now and have particularly taken on the party’s Northeast strategist Himanta Biswa Sarma’s attempt to polarise the Assamese society on religious lines. In January, Sarma, at a rally of BJP karyakartas, lampooned Saikia for reciting a famous poem of celebrated Assamese poet Jyoti Prasad Agarwala at an anti-Bill event in Guwahati and challenged him to recite it in some Muslim-dominated areas of the state.

Saikia not only took up his challenge by visiting the areas Sarma had named in his speech but also launched into an hour-and-a-half long retort to it on Pratidin Time. With nearly three lakh views, the retort to Sarma was a huge hit.

Members of different organisations hold placards against a Joint Committee hearing on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill at the Assam Administrative Staff College, Khanapara, in Guwahati. Credit: PTI

Sarma also criticised both Saikia and Bhuyan – a respected name in the Assamese journalistic fraternity – for offering a glass of juice to the state’s peasant leader Akhil Gogoi who was fasting against the Bill on the night of Bhogali Bihu, a festive occasion marked by an elaborate feast among the Assamese and no one is expected to go hungry.

Around the same time in January when the protest against the Bill was at its peak in the state, Manjit Mahanta was also charged under section 124A (sedition) of the IPC along with Akhil Gogoi and noted public intellectual of the state Hiren Gohain for their speech against the Bill. This led to massive public outrage, pushing the administration to back off.

The MHA letter, written on April 16 by Sanjeev Kumar, under-secretary at the North East division, has attached the complaint by Joshi, which sought to investigate the “role of suspicious Assam media outlets and their owners, their financial transactions, source of income, possible flow of funds from foreign international agencies and banned terrorist groups” and “all other possible aspects related to it.” It has particularly sought action against them for “their role in spreading militant ideologies and actively assisting fresh recruitment of Assam youth in banned militant groups by running loud media propaganda.”

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Aside from complaining to the MHA, the LRO has also written to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting against the news channels Pratidin Time, Prag News and TV18.

Top sources in the state police, however, told The Wire, “We have no information about the MHA letter yet.”

The LRO, which claims to “expose human rights and civil rights violations in India” and uses “legal procedures” to protect rights of the Hindus, is among several Hindu nationalist legal-rights bodies which operate as vigilante groups. It is run by former RSS pracharaks belonging to the outfit’s legal wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Adhivakta Parishad.

In the past, the group had reportedly initiated legal proceedings against Aziz Burney, the editor-in-chief of the Urdu daily Sahara for publishing a book titled 26/11: RSS Ki Saazish? (26/11: An RSS Conspiracy?). In 2017, it went after India Today TV with a police complaint for inviting writer-academic Nandini Sundar to a live discussion.

The LRO is also seen to be getting increasingly active in the Northeast, particularly in filing legal complaints against Christian groups and church leaders, mainly in Meghalaya. It had also sent letters to various district commissioners in Assam seeking to take action against the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) of Akhil Gogoi for calling bandhs and demanded that the state recover compensations from these outfits for the shutdowns. No action has been taken yet on those letters.

Reacting to the news, Bhuyan told The Wire, “I am not surprised by it. These are the journalists who have exposed from time to time the RSS agenda in the state. This is a pressure tactic, an attempt to terrorise not just us but others too who are opposed to the Bill. They want to set an example through us that whoever opposed the Bill and the BJP/RSS will meet such a treatment and the stamp of anti-national will be put on them. This is a country-wide trend these days. The reason why the complainant from the RSS camp wants the state government to check the financial transactions of the owners is to put pressure on them to throw us out of our jobs. They want to silence our voices.”

During the late 1990s, Bhuyan, then editor of the Assamese daily Natun Samay, was assaulted by about 20 armed men in civilian clothes believed to be from the security forces. They entered his office-cum-residence in Guwahati, ransacked it and threatened him and his family.

Bhuyan then told reporters that his life was in danger because his paper had criticised the army. The Committee for Protection of Journalists had written a letter to the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee condemning the incident and called on him to “launch an immediate investigation into the raid” and “make the findings of that investigation public.”

Late on April 18, MHA spokesperson reportedly denied issuing any order to probe the journalists based on the LRO’s complaint. The spokesperson said the complaint was received through its grievance redressal email and was forwarded to the Assam government as a ‘routine’ matter. The MHA letter directed the state government to look into the matter and inform the complainant directly.

Note: This story was updated with the MHA’s response at 9:57 pm on April 18.