The Manipur High Court on Friday directed the state and the central government to file counter affidavits by February 1 next year after hearing a petition filed by Manipur journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem, who challenged his year-long detention under the National Security Act (NSA).
Wangkhem’s challenge appears to be an uphill battle as the main journalists’ body in India’s eastern state of Manipur decided to look the other way, citing a standing order adopted in August, days after his arrest.
Wangkhem filed a criminal writ petition on Wednesday, challenging his detention under the National Security Act, 1980.
On Friday, his wife Elangbam Ranjita submitted a letter to the court requesting it consider the printed statements of retired Supreme Court justice Markandeya Katju as a ‘letter petition.’ It drew attention to the celebrated Supreme Court verdict on Romesh Thapar versus the State of Madras case as a reference to quash the “illegal” order of the state government.
In his statement posted on Facebook on December 20, Katju drew the attention of the Chief Justice of the High Court to the violation of Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, by the state of Manipur in detaining Wangkhem under the National Security Act. He criticized the state government and its chief minister. In his Facebook post, the retired justice dubbed Chief Minister N Biren Singh a ‘little dictator.’
Wangkhem was arrested on November 20, allegedly over a social media post in which he questioned the rationale of observing the birth anniversary of Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi – a leading figure of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 against the British – in Manipur. He argued that Manipur’s own struggle against British rule should not be demeaned.
In another social media post, he spoke against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP and its ideological mentor the Rashtriyaswayam Sevak Sangh or the RSS and the Manipur Chief Minister.
He was arrested at the residence of his lawyer Victor Chongtham at Khonghampat Awang Leikai by an Imphal Police team and detained on sedition charges.
He was released on bail on November 26 after the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Imphal West, ordered his release, saying he was merely expressing ‘his opinion against the public conduct of a public figure in street language.’
However, he was detained the next day under the orders of District Magistrate, Imphal West, N Praveen Singh, to ‘prevent him from resuming his prejudicial activities against the security of the state and for the maintenance of law and order as he was a habitual offender.’
Journalist body quiet
Brozendro Ningomba, the President of All Manipur Journalists Working Union (AMJWU), issued a statement earlier this month saying the Union had adopted a resolution in August to refrain from intervening if any journalist working under the union faces any consequences for posting defamatory comments or videos not connected with the profession of journalism.
The statement also stressed that Wangkhem’s detention under the NSA after he was granted bail did not change the Union’s stand.
Brozendro said Wangkhem was an “ungrateful beast” who did not have the decency to say a simple “thank you” during the more than two months he worked under him after securing his release in August.
Wangkhem had been arrested on August 9 after posting a picture of Laishram Radhakishore, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator from Manipur’s Oinam assembly constituency, on Facebook. The post implied that the BJP organized a rally to sabotage the agitations of the students of Manipur University, who were seeking the ouster of its controversial former Vice-Chancellor AP Pandey. His caption read: “I am not organizing but just observing: An MLA of Buddhu (idiot) Joker Party.”
“How many times am I going to kneel before others to bail him out? I am willing to be sent to the gallows for securing his release earlier by violating certain legal procedures,” Brozendro said.
Defending his stand despite the Indian Journalists Union’s (IJU) support for the arrested man, Brozendro said most of the IJU members were communists hell-bent on toppling the BJP government and who addresses each other as ‘comrade.’
Feud with BJP legislator
Another Facebook post by Wangkhem from July 8 mentioned that he had spent a night in a police lock-up after a scuffle with Laishram Radhakishore’s escorts, who had dumped him at a police station after beating him up for overtaking the MLA’s convoy.
Wangkhem wrote in that post: “I did not run over anyone nor collided with any vehicle. Then why did you beat me and put me in a lock-up? When they were drafting the undertaking for my release, they told me to sign agreeing to never report about the incident in the media nor make it public but I refused and told them that I would prefer to stay in a lock-up instead of signing. So, I had to spend a night in the lock-up.”
His wife, Ranjita Elangbam, confirmed the incident. So did Richard Ranjan, a desk editor at the Information and Service Television Network (ISTV), a colleague of Wangkhem.
“The escorts of Oinam MLA Laishram Radhakishore kicked him in his gut and thrashed him for overtaking their convoy while he was returning home after hosting an event in Bishnupur district. After learning about his identity as a journalist, they took him to the nearby Nambol police station, instructing the policemen there to suppress the issue at their own discretion,” Ranjita says.
Besides working as a journalist, Wangkhem also dabbled in emceeing and teaching spoken English.
“We went to Nambol police station to secure his release sometime in July,” says Ranjan, referring to Wangkhem’s first run-in with the government. He adds that “Kishorchandra is a thorough gentleman and professional” committed to his job, narrating incidents about Wangkhem’s punctuality and responsible attitude at work.
Ashish Hamom, one of his co-workers from Impact TV where Wangkhem worked before joining ISTV, vouched for the fact that despite juggling various jobs, Wangkhem was quite punctual and efficient to the point that he felt being taken for granted and exploited, eventually leading to him quit the news channel.
Pukhrambam Prufullo, the president at the ISTV Network who is also Wangkhem’s last employer, says apart from his few misadventures with those in the government and acting against office rules by making things personal, he performed “commendably.” However, Wangkhem’s colleagues from Impact TV say he never had issues while working there.
Talking about Wangkhem’s last days at Impact TV, channel editor Raj Nongthombam says he worked under stress as the editorial section was understaffed, and it was difficult for Wangkhem to continue doing that for a long time.