Indian defense researcher and commentator Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, who was accused of hurting religious sentiments, has been released from prison after Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik decided to ‘pardon’ him.
Patnaik’s government in the east Indian state removed controversial sections of the Indian Penal Code – 295A and 153A – from applying to Iyer-Mitra’ s case. Originally, these two laws were cited by the police when he was arrested on October 23 and accused of hurting religious sentiments and disturbing public order.
Iyer-Mitra was originally summoned by the Odisha State Assembly to explain his remarks on Twitter mocking members of the legislative assembly and also making disparaging remarks against prominent Hindu temples, Jagannath and Konark. In another tweet, he questioned the origin of sweetmeat Rasgulla, a food culture issue which has been debated by people of Odisha and Bengal.
After his appearance before the Assembly, Iyer-Mitra was arrested by police and charged with making “derogatory, mischievous and objectionable” remarks about Odia (natives of Odisha) people and culture. Iyer-Mitra was unable to bail and detained for over a month, as lawyers in Odisha were on strike. But after apologizing to the Assembly for his tweets, he was pardoned.
Before going to Odisha, Iyer-Mitra, who is based in New Delhi, had tried reaching out to the Supreme Court to try to get bail. But Chief Justice of India Rajan Gogoi rejected this, saying that if his life was indeed in danger, what safer place to be than in jail?
Ruben Banerjee, editor of Outlook magazine and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s unofficial biographer, has claimed that the real reason behind Iyer-Mitra’s arrest and his subsequent ordeal was because he was close to Patnaik’s rival Jay Panda. Panda quit Odisha’s ruling party Biju Janata Dal recently and is expected to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He had allegedly invited Iyer-Mitra to visit the state. The Outlook report suggests that the state police first tried to frame Panda in a fake case involving his helicopter flying over an ecologically-sensitive lake. But having failed due to lack of evidence, they allegedly went after Iyer-Mitra.
His arrest played out extensively on social media. An earlier tweet by Iyer-Mitra demanding the arrest of historian Audrey Truschke under the same law that he was charged with violating, was widely circulated. What was also ironic was that human right organizations like Amnesty International, which he wanted to be banned in India, ran a campaign demanding his release, as did free-speech advocacy group PEN.
Ditched by his own
Iyer-Mitra’s arrest exposed cracks within the political right on issues of free speech and expression. On many issues, he has publicly aligned with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Though he is not a member of either of these organizations.
Just before his arrest, Iyer-Mitra was seen on various TV channels strongly defending Modi government’s position on the controversial Rafale deal. His other link to politics is his mother Chandralekha VS, who is a former Indian Administrative Services officer and was the president of Tamil Nadu unit of Subramanian Swamy’s Janata Party before it merged with the BJP in 2013.
Once Iyer-Mitra was arrested, BJP leaders went silent or in some cases tried to disown him. Union Petroleum Minister and BJP leader from Odisha, Dharmendra Pradhan, in fact, supported his arrest and said that anyone who hurts Odia pride should be charged. BJP legislature party leader KV Singhdeo tried to distance his party from Iyer-Mitra. “He is not a BJP man,” he told media.
Television channels seen as aligned with the ruling BJP were silent on this issue. The Hindu right wing and Iyer-Mitra’s favorite punching bag NDTV was the first national channel that had a debate on the issue, while Mirror Now took up the cause towards the end.
Digital and print publications did the basic coverage, except Outlook magazine, which was the only media platform that covered the issue consistently and highlighted what seems to be the main issue at the core of Iyer-Mitra’s arrest – blatant misuse of sections 295A and 153A of the Penal Code for political purposes.
In the past, victims of these two laws included renowned artist MF Hussain (who left India after being continuously targeted of his painting of Hindu Gods and Goddesses), American Indologist Wendy Doniger whose book The Hindu: An Alternative History was withdrawn by Penguin in India after a Hindu right-wing activist Dinanath Batra filed a lawsuit under Section 295A against the book, and comedian Kiku Sharda who was arrested in 2016 by Haryana police under the same act for hurting the sentiments of a sect called Dera Sacha Sauda. Sharda played a popular character on a Hindi comedy TV show in which he mocked the head of the Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh sect.
Bollywood actors have also been caught up under Section 295A. In February 2015 actors Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor, plus director-producer Karan Johar were dragged to court by a law teacher over a comedy show for offending Christian and Sindhi communities citing the same law.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is no doubt the first high-profile personality aligned with the political right to be arrested under these two colonial-era laws in recent times. This has certainly triggered debate on the difference between free speech and hate speech within civil society that identifies itself with the BJP and RSS. Whether it delivers any genuine change in the law is something that only time will tell.