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New Delhi: In a new low in curbing dissent and freedom of speech, the N. Biren Singh-led Bharatiya Janata Party government in Manipur has arrested a state Congress spokesperson on the charge of sedition for criticising Union home minister Amit Shah’s recent comment on the need to promote Hindi at a discussion in a local TV channel.
The arrest of Sanoujam Shyamcharan Singh (Sanou), who is also a prominent Imphal-based lawyer, was carried out by the Manipur Police on the basis of a complaint filed on April 11 by M. Bharish Sharma, the state president of the party’s youth wing, Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha.
As per local news reports, acting on the complaint, a team of the Imphal Police arrested Sanou at around 1 am on April 12 from his residence. Sanou was released on bail on on Tuesday evening.
A news report by The Frontier Manipur on April 12 night said, “Till the filing of this report, Sanou was yet to be produced in any court.” The report said Sanou has been charged under Sections 124A (sedition), 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings) and 505 (public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code.
The discussion in which Sanou took part along with some others was on Impact TV on April 9. The topic was ‘Hindi: Unification or Imposition Debate’.
Speaking to The Wire from Imphal, advocate Ravi Khan, also the vice chairman of the legal cell of the Manipur Pradesh Congress Committee, said, “Sanou was produced before the duty magistrate, Imphal West, at around 8:30 pm on April 12. After one and a half hours of hearing arguments for and against his police or judicial remand, the magistrate granted him bail around 10 pm.”
Khan said the case will continue and “Sanou has been asked to present himself before the lower court on April 27 next”.
On being asked what Sanou said against Shah that the state BJP leaders found objectionable, Khan said, “He criticised him severely for suggesting Hindi be made compulsory till class 10 in the Northeast but also compared Shah to a bearded monkey whom he said he doesn’t know which community he actually belongs to.” Sanou is also the chairman of the MPCC legal cell.
The local BJP youth leader, in his complaint to the Imphal West officer in charge, said Sanou during the discussion had not only “abused the mainland Indian but also used foul and derogatory language” against Shah. He went on to say, “The accused deliberately maliciously humiliated and belittled the Hindus of mainland India by evening terming them as animal and the accused continued to further use derogatory language, thereby hurting the racial and religious feelings of entire India which amounts to sedition despite the other panellists restraining him to do so.”
Sharma accused the Congress spokesperson of “exciting innocent public against government established by law and intended to outrage the religious feelings and beliefs of Hindus of mainland India including Manipuri Hindus”.
While speaking to the local media, state BJP president A. Sharda Devi supported Sharma’s action. While sidestepping the controversial issue of Shah asking people across the country to adopt Hindi, she accused the Congress of “gradually declining in the country because of its racism and failure in how to speak and behave towards the Indians”. She reportedly said on April 11, prior to Sanou’s arrest, that the BJP “always advocates for mutual respect among the mankind and the communities”.
Meanwhile, across the northeast, several civil society and students’ organisations and political parties have severely condemned Shah’s remarks on promoting Hindi.
While police across the country are quick to use sedition charges against, the legal validity of using this section is questionable. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that sedition is constituted by written or spoken words which “have the effect of bringing contempt or dissatisfaction or the idea of subverting government by violent means”. In Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar, the apex court said that if comments, however strongly worded, do not have the tendency to incite violence, they cannot be treated as sedition.
In May 2021, the Supreme Court said that it “is time to define the limits of sedition,” noting that sections of the Indian Penal Code that deal with sedition require interpretation, particularly in the context of media freedom.