In Bid to Stifle Free Speech, 'Offences Against the State' Make Comeback in Northeast

Attempts to silence activists and journalists on trumped up charges of ‘waging war against the state’ aren't exactly new.

Guwahati (Assam): Over the last few years in the Northeast, punitive laws like the National Security Act, 1980 and ‘offences against the state’ have been invoked several times to counter insurgency. In the most recent cases of bookings and detentions under the NSA and sedition laws, however, it is activists and journalists who have come under fire.

On January 10, Assamese intellectual and Sahitya Akademi writer Hiren Gohain, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti leader Akhil Gogoi and journalist Manjit Mahanta were booked for sedition. A case under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, among other other offences against the state (121, 123), were filed against the three for criticising the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016 at a rally on January 7.

Also read: Assam: Hiren Gohain, Akhil Gogoi Charged With Sedition for Opposing Citizenship Bill

While the charge of sedition against someone like Gogoi may not be as surprising – in September 2017, he was booked under the NSA until the Gauhati high court stepped in two months later – the case against Gohain has elicited shock and dismay, much of it directed at the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government.

A dirty decade

Highly regarded across India, the fact that Gohain’s head is on the chopping block has raised an alarm in Assam.

The attempt to silence activists and journalists using draconian state laws harks back to the days of the Assam agitation (1979-1985) and subsequently, the years after the Assam Accord was signed.

During the 1990s, armed operations against the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) were at their peak, as were human rights violations by the security forces. It was then that journalists such as Ajit Bhuyan and Parag Kumar Das, along with lawyer Niloy Dutta, started documenting alleged army excesses in rural Assam, forming the Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti (MASS).

Also read: Hiren Gohain Has Been Charged With Sedition. Here Are His Actual Views.

After releasing their findings in a press conference in New Delhi, the three were arrested under unspecified sections of the NSA. “They submitted most of my writing as grounds for my detention because they didn’t have anything specific,” said Bhuyan, who now serves as the editor-in-chief of Prag News in Guwahati.

Over the decade, he was arrested several times under preventive detention laws, including the now repealed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, TADA, for exposing human rights violations by the armed forces and corruption scandals in the government. But none of the charges were ever proven in court.

Parag Kumar Das

In 1996, his ‘partner in crime’ Parag Kumar Das was killed in broad daylight while picking up his son from school in Guwahati.

Detention and unlawful arrests aside, Bhuyan said he had continuously been threatened as well. There were several attempts on his life under the Prafulla Mahanta-led Asom Gana Parishad regime, even though he had supported Mahanta’s bid for power.

“They took me from Nagaon to Jorhat and then to Majuli, where they had actually planned to kill me. But people came out in the streets in Majuli and I received a lot of international support from organisations like the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International,” he told The Wire.

A ‘jittery’ government

Recalling the late nineties, noted poet and Sahitya Akademi awardee Harekrishna Deka said he tried to put a curb on the use of the NSA during his brief stint as the director general of police between 2000 and 2002.

“I served during the time of Tarun Gogoi, when the Act was rarely ever used. He categorically stated to me that preventive detention acts should not be used,” he told The Wire.

Deka, who was present at the meeting on January 7, says that a respectable intellectual like Gohain had only remarked that if constitutional methods don’t work, then there could be calls for independence.

The charges of sedition, he said, are a sign of a government getting jittery before the elections.

“Two former chief ministers – Tarun Gogoi and Prafulla Mahanta – were present, as was another Congress minister and a CPM leader. It was a meeting to condemn the actions of the BJP government,” he told The Wire.

But have the sedition charges filed against Gohain, Gogoi and Mahanta discouraged other intellectuals from expressing their opinions? According to Deka, that strategy has proved to be ‘ineffectual’ in Assam.

“People here are used to it. To use it against intellectuals who are reputed to be democratic – everyone irrespective of their political affiliation has condemned it,” he said. “In fact, it has only provoked those who were sitting on the fence.”

Also read: Assam Government Forms NSA Board to Prosecute Farmers’ Rights Activist Akhil Gogoi

Bhuyan says that the situation may not have improved since the time of ‘secret killings’ in the state, it’s just that the tactics the government employs have become more subtle. “Now the pressure comes through the management to silence me,” he said. Although he says that the resistance movement is growing day by day, repressive measures like mass arrests or booking of dissenters may not happen this time around.

“We have seen how the elections in 1983 were conducted even though they were held  against the wishes of the public. We may see a repeat of 1983,” he told The Wire.

Advocate Arup Borbora, who is representing Gohain and others, said his own father, former chief minister Golap Borbora, was once detained under a preventive detention act – the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA).

“Consecutive governments in Assam – whether Hiteshwar Saikia, Prafulla Mahanta or now Sarbananda Sonowal – have used NSA,” he said. “This is the intolerance of the government, which is not ready to listen to the voices of the people and instead, resort to such fascist tendencies,” Borbora said.

Old modus operandi, fresh targets

As per the National Crime Records Bureau, which began compiling sedition and other offences against state since 2014, cases of sedition in the Northeastern states were far and few.

However, cases registered under IPC sections 121, 121A, 122 and 123 are remarkably higher in the Northeastern states, particularly in Assam, Meghalaya and Manipur. Most of these cases, however, were booked in relation to militancy. While the 2017 NCRB data is yet to be released, ministry of home affairs reports show a 58% decline in insurgency related incidents in 2017, compared to a 15% decline reported in 2016.

Administrative detention has been widely criticised by several human rights groups and deemed a ‘lawless’ system by the Supreme Court of India. Borbora said there was enough precedence in previous Supreme Court rulings of mere criticism not amounting to ‘waging war against the nation’.

“Over the last 40 years, the high court has set aside NSA charges in more than 95% of the cases. I don’t know of anyone convicted under sedition,” he adds.

While politicians have criticised the use of a ‘colonial era law’ like sedition, none of the parties in power have ever tried to repeal the act. BJP leader Ram Madhav, who is in charge of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), recently told the media that “anti national activities and ideas have to be tackled through due legal procedure”.

Though the Gauhati high court granted interim bail to Gohain and Gogoi and absolute bail to Mahanta, journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem has been in administrative detention in Manipur for almost two months now.

Kishorchandra Wangkhem. Credit: Facebook

Wangkhem was arrested initially under the sedition law (among other offences) on November 20, 2018, for posting videos criticising the chief minister N. Biren Singh and the ruling BJP government at the state and Centre for celebrating the birth anniversary of Rani Laxmibai in an official event in Manipur.

While hearing the case, however, the chief judicial magistrate of Imphal West found that the offence he was accused of did not amount to sedition and released him from the charges. The CJM noted, “The government, especially its functionary like the prime minister or chief minister cannot be so sensitive as to take offence upon expression of opinion by its citizen which may be given very nicely by using proper words or indecently by using some vulgar terms”.

Despite the order, the former ISTV journalist was detained under section 3(2) of the National Security Act, 1980 just a day later on the orders of the district magistrate of West Manipur. He felt that, “in view of his prejudicial activities in the proximate past and that therefore, he should be prevented from commission of such prejudicial activities through an alternative preventive measure”.

All the outcry against his arrest from journalist unions and human rights groups went to vain when the Advisory Board on NSA extended his detention from three months to a full year.

Back in 2008, Right to Information activist, Titus Kamei served close to four months in detention under the NSA after he wrote a complaint to the chief secretary about the alleged misappropriation of a Central-sponsored development scheme for Tamenglong district in Manipur.

Speaking to The Wire, Kamei said that he went to discuss the matter on the invitation of the then district collector. However, that day, “men in civvies whisked me away at gunpoint and took me to different isolated locations and finally, l was lodged in police custody by 11 pm”, he said. Kamei spent a week in custody before he was handed the detention order prior to being sent to Sajiwa jail.

Kamei said that had it not been for the RTI documents he had on him, he could have been eliminated that day. “The cop who arrested me got several phone calls that day and I heard him saying that if they got rid of me, some problems could come up for them”, he said.

As per an order dated August 20, 2008 signed by the governor of Manipur and accessed by The Wire, Kamei’s detention was recommended for 12 months given “his past activities as an extortionist and the potential danger of his activities to the maintenance of public order”. He was eventually released in October after the Union home ministry ordered his release on September 11, 2008 following state wide protests from student and civil society groups.

While the complaint he raised was closed during his detention, Kamei shared a copy of a 2010 order of the State Chief Information Officer, which commissioned an enquiry into the expenditure of the Rs 45 crore public funds for the development of his home district. “The situation in Manipur right now is not conducive for me to take up the case. Since I’ve lost faith in the state department, I hope to take this up in court someday,” he told The Wire.

Human rights activist and lawyer, Babloo Loitongbam, says the NSA has been quite liberally used in Manipur, including to detain the mothers who staged the naked protest at Kangla Fort in 2004. “If the Congress was ruling, comments like this (Wangkhem’s post) would not have resulted in the NSA – unless you talked about independence or any army atrocity”, he told The Wire.

Pointing to the increase in state brutality, he said that the space for civil society in Manipur has considerably shrunk. “The scale and use of force during the midnight police raid in Manipur University was quite insensitive. Many students and professors were arrested on trumped up charges of ‘waging war against the state’”, said Loitongbam.