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Interview | 'Was Physically Abused in Custody,' Says Activist Booked Under NSA For 'Cow Dung' Post

Manipuri activist Erendro, who is currently out on bail, speaks to 'The Wire' exclusively and describes how Manipur Police treated him during his arrest and incarceration.

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New Delhi: On July 20, the Supreme Court sought a reply from the Manipur government in a significant case involving a plea for compensation for wrongful detention under the National Security Act (NSA).

Accused under the NSA on May 17 and in jail since then for stating on social media that cow urine and cow dung were no cure for COVID-19 after the death of state BJP president professor S. Tikendra Singh due to the virus, Imphal-based political activist Erendro Leichombam – through his father L. Raghumani Singh – had moved the apex court seeking relief.

The state government had invoked NSA on Erendro soon after a local court granted him bail on the matter.

Over two months later, on July 19, the two-judge bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud ordered the immediate release of Erendro from jail. Since the petition also sought compensation for wrongful detention under NSA, the bench, hearing the case on July 20, issued notice to the BJP-led Manipur government to reply in two weeks its response to the matter.

Imphal-based journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem was also arrested on May 13 along with Erendro for a similar comment on social media, later charged under the NSA and had been in detention. He too was granted bail on May 17 by a local court.

Following the July 19 Supreme Court order, Kishorechandra’s wife Ranjita Elangbam has written to the state government to release him and revoke the NSA against him too. In the letter written to the state chief secretary Rajesh Kumar on July 20, Ranjita argued that her husband be released too and NSA be revoked in his case also as the charges brought against him were the same as those against Erendro.

The Wire caught up with Erendro whose life had changed dramatically since he wrote on Facebook, “The cure for Corona is not cow dung and cow urine. The cure is science and common sense. Professor ji RIP.”

Excerpts from the interview:

Can you describe for The Wire‘s readers under what circumstances you were picked up on May 13 by Manipur Police?

Police barged into our residence around 8.30 pm on May 13. By that time, I had retired for the night. Within an hour of putting up my comment on Facebook, Manipur Police nearly knocked down the front gate of our house in Imphal and rushed up to the fourth floor, into my bedroom and dragged me out…all this while blurting abuses at me.

They didn’t have any arrest warrant. My mother tried to intervene, said, “If you want to arrest him, do it, but allow him to be properly dressed.”

I was in my nightclothes. They violently pushed my mother; she fell down, sustained an injury on her upper chest. There is, I think, evidence of it too. I was dragged into a police vehicle and taken away to the Imphal West police station. The way police acted showed there was immense pressure on them from the top.

Also read: Manipur Has Jailed an Activist, a Journalist for 2 Months Now for Saying Cow Dung Can’t Cure COVID

What happened at the police station?

Well, we reached the Imphal West police station a little after 9 pm. Within five minutes of my reaching there, journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem was also brought in. Police used abusive language at us, the kind I have never heard in my life.

They asked me for my phone, I handed it over, then they wanted to know the password; I refused to give it and told them I will be happy to cooperate and open the phone for them to see what they want to see but would not give the password to them because I have a lot of sensitive private information stored in it.

On my refusal, they took me to the OC’s room. In the presence of three-four policemen, the OC of Imphal West district, N. Ingocha Singh, began beating me with a stick.

I remained calm; didn’t give up. I told him I would not share my phone password. I told him he can’t beat me like that under law. Ingocha Singh also used the dirtiest abuses but gave up after some time. Kishorechandra and I were thrown into the lockup then.

I asked the OC for the arrest memo; I was not shown that. They showed it only after my parents came to the police station the next morning.

Journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem. Photo: Facebook

When Kishorechandra and I were thrown into the lockup, a guard there said one person was infected with COVID-19. On hearing that, I protested and asked for us to be isolated, that COVID-19 protocol not be violated and that we should be tested first before being put in the lock-up. They didn’t do anything of that sort.

The next day, we were presented at the court of the duty magistrate.

Also read: ‘Can’t Be Kept in Jail for Even a Day’: SC Orders Immediate Release of Manipuri Activist

Can your recall for our readers what happened at the duty magistrate’s court?

The magistrate on duty that day was Moirangthem Heeralata. I told her that I was physically abused at the police station by the OC, which the police officer present in the court denied. I told her I could show her the bruises. She reprimanded the officer for it but sent both Kishorechandra and me to four days of police custody.

Those four days, we were not allowed to sleep; they kept asking us something or the other; reading out statements after statements written on our behalf filled with things which we didn’t say. There was no case against us; so my hunch is by including things that we didn’t say, they tried to desperately build a case against both of us.

After four days, when we were presented in front of the Imphal West chief judicial magistrate (CJM) Y. Somojit Singh, the government’s lawyer Jamuna tried to push those fabricated statements to keep us in custody, but the CJM granted bail to Kishorechandra and me.

However, before our lawyer could ready the necessary papers to get our release, the government clamped National Security Act (NSA) on us which forced the magistrate to allow our detention.

Both you and Kishorechandra were sent to Sajjwa jail on the outskirts of Imphal…

Yes. For nearly a month, both of us were kept in the same room but were later separated. We barely met inside the jail thereafter.

I just hope that the Supreme Court judgment on July 19 in my case helps Kishorechandra get out of jail too in this bogus case as the charges against him are the same.

Your petition through your father in the Supreme Court has also sought compensation from the state for wrongful detention under NSA. Why did you think of going a step further than just seeking release from jail and quashing the NSA brought against you?

The keyword behind that decision is “accountability”. The present Manipur government must learn that it can’t put inside jail anyone simply because it doesn’t like that person. It can’t abuse its constitutional powers.

Aside from that primary reason, it is also because if you keep sending people to jail over and over again, it ends up as an expensive affair for the person. Fighting a case needs a lot of financial resources, even if it is a bogus case. The state knows that certain cases wouldn’t stand in the court of law, like my case, but it still does because to deplete not just the person’s mental and physical strength but also the financial strength too.

The government employed a clever tactic in my case. Soon after my release order came from the Supreme Court on July 19, the government revoked NSA against me. In the July 20 hearing, solicitor general of India Tushar Mehta told the Supreme Court bench that I was released and the government revoked NSA and, therefore, the bench should put the matter to rest. Our counsel Shadan Farasat argued that the matter for compensation had been there in the original petition. The Supreme Court bench said it is a serious matter and a person’s liberty was lost and, therefore, issued a notice to the Manipur government to reply on my illegal detention within two weeks.

The next hearing of the case is set for August 6.

You are also a part of a political party, People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA). You had contested the last assembly polls held in 2017 as its candidate. Do you see this act and the slapping of several other cases against you over a period of time by the BJP-led government as an attack on a political opponent?

Certainly, it is. It is a blatant example of political persecution by abusing its government’s constitutional powers.

There has been an attempt to take away my means of livelihood too. I am a graduate of the prestigious Harvard Kennedy School; I returned to my state to give back something worthwhile to our people and began running a vocational training school for girls in Imphal.

We had an enrolment of 140 students in various courses like spoken English, computer training, etc. We gave them job placements too. The programme was partially funded by the Union Ministry of Rural Development.

In February this year, the state police shut down my school alleging that there is a charge of misuse of the Central government’s funds against me. All my equipment was seized. I am now fighting a case in the lower court against that charge.

I see blatant vindictive politics at play here.