New Delhi: Journalist and security analyst Abhijit Iyer-Mitra has become the latest victim of the growing tendency of law enforcement authorities across India to criminalise free speech, with the police arresting him on Thursday for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Odisha’s famous Sun Temple at Konark.
Hours after being picked up by the Delhi police, he was granted bail until September 28.
Earlier in the day, opposition parties in Odisha created a furore in the assembly to push the Biju Janata Dal-led state government to investigate the matter, as they felt it “hurt the religious sentiments” of the Odia people.
OTV reported that following the assembly debate debate led by the Congress leader and currently the leader of opposition, Narasingha Mishra, speaker Pradip Amat “approved the proposal for a house committee to investigate the matter”.
Iyer-Mitra’s lawyer, Nikhil Mehra, confirmed to The Wire that he was arrested in Delhi.
The outcry over his comments started on September 15 when the analyst posted a video on social media of himself standing in front of some friezes making the following comment in Hindi, tongue firmly in cheek:
“Bhaiyon aur behanon. I am in Odisha’s famous Konark Temple. This is not a temple but a humple where people are humping. See these sculptures… Women with women, men with animals. Can this be a holy place? Not al all. This is a conspiracy against Hindus by Muslims who want to keep us down! I want to only say Jai Sriram! In our new Ram Temple, such obscene sculptures will not be there!”
The English translation does not capture the satirical nature of the Hindi comment, which is evident in the video, which ends with some off camera laughter.
Odisha 9: my special message to you from the Konark temple expressing my utter disgust at this monumental conspiracy against the Hindu Civilisation pic.twitter.com/wJeqZPHRDk
— Abhijit Iyer-Mitra (@Iyervval) September 16, 2018
Iyer-Mitra was accompanying former BJD leader Baijayant Panda and another journalist, Aarti Tikoo Singh, in a chopper when he shot the video. Panda, who is a licensed helicopter pilot, had taken the two for a flight over the Sun Temple, the Jagannath Temple, Puri and Chilika Lake.
Soon after he posted the video, BJD and Congress MLAs created an uproar, claiming that he had hurt the pride and religious sentiments of Odisha, and demanded action against him. Their campaign spilled over to an assembly discussion and later led to his arrest. Panda’s chopper was also seized by the Odisha police for allegedly flying over the Chilika Lake, an eco-sensitive zone.
Both Panda and Aarti Tikoo Singh came to his defence:
So Odisha Police has arrested my friend @Iyervval for his satirical humor because it “hurt religious sentiments”. This is the other side of Indian democracy where religious sentiment supersedes and prevails over all other fundamental rights. We remain stuck in Middle Ages. Shame.
— Aarti Tikoo Singh (@AartiTikoo) September 20, 2018
Panda, too, accused the Odisha government of high-handedness and trying to “handicap his movement”.
“Given the fact that Panda is now opposed to both the BJD and the Congress, it appears Abhijit became the fall guy for accompanying Panda and making those remarks,” a senior journalist in Bhubaneswar told The Wire, on the condition of anonymity.
He said the claim that Iyer-Mitra’s comment hurt religious sentiment seems implausible as the Sun Temple no longer even functions as a temple. “It is only a tourist site. No worship happens there. Both Konark and Khajuraho depict Indian sexuality from the ancient past. Everyone knows that. To make it a political issue, and then a police case, is stretching the issue a little too far,” he added.
The fact that BJD and Congress MLAs both went after Iyer-Mitra suggests wider political factors may be at play. Joint dharnas were also also staged by the Congress and BJD inside the premises of the assembly. The leader of opposition then moved a privilege motion against Iyer-Mitra and the speaker approved it. The speaker has also constituted a committee headed by Mishra to probe the matter further.
BJD and Congress MLAs also saw an RSS hand in defaming the Sun Temple. BJD MLA Sanjay Dasburma said, “It (Iyer-Mitra’s video) is an insult to the state and its existence. Action should be taken against the man.”
Similarly, Narasingha Mishra said, “There are two video clips which show a non-Odia, RSS man standing in front of Konark Temple making comments… Remarks of Abhijit Iyer have disrespected and hurt the sentiments of the people of Odisha and Odia language. He should be summoned to the state and the house should decide on the quantum of punishment.”
The BJP in Odisha, meanwhile, has said that Iyer-Mitra is not a BJP member and urged political parties to refrain from making the issue political.