The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has asked the Assam government to “take necessary action” on a complaint by a right-leaning legal activism body against three editors, a journalist-activist and a TV channel for allegedly propagating “militant ideology… to give fresh boost to ULFA” ever “since the issue of Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 started creating waves in North East India”.
The editors named in the complaint have called it an attack on the freedom of the press and free speech. Two of the three have been vocal in their criticism of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.
The MHA North East Division letter dated April 16, signed by Under Secretary Sanjeev Kumar and addressed to Ashutosh Agnihotri, Assam Commissioner and Secretary (Home and Political), and Kuladhar Saikia, Director General of Police, asked them to take “necessary action” on the complaint by Vinay Joshi who heads the Maharashtra-based Legal Rights Observatory (LRO). It said “the applicant may be informed directly”.
Reached for comment, Agnihotri told The Indian Express he was yet to receive the official letter.
Joshi’s complaint names two chief editors of Assamese news channels — Nitumoni Saikia of Pratidin Time and Ajit Kumar Bhuyan of Prag News. It also names Afrida Hussain, editor of online news portal InsideNE, and also the “News 18-Assamese TV” (a probable reference to the Guwahati-based news channel owned by the Network 18 Group).
The activist Manjit Mahanta, who was charged with sedition in January along with intellectual Hiren Gohain and activist Akhil Gogoi, for alleged secessionist comments at a rally against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Guwahati, has also been named. The complaint says Mahanta is of the Asomiya Pratidin newspaper — he had left it nearly a decade ago.
The complaint states: “Since the issue of Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 started creating waves in North East India, many media houses based in Assam started exploiting situation for their own benefit. Defunct militant group ULFA has launched fresh recruitment drive in Assam by using media created unrest… Aforesaid people and their electronic, digital and print media outlets are directly broadcasting videos and propaganda material of newly inducted militants in battle fatigue to propagate militant ideology and to give fresh boost to ULFA and other militant groups.”
Targeting the press in times of protests
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill has led to protests across Assam, and many there have been very vocal in their criticism of the proposed law since they think it is not in the interest of the indigenous people of the state. The LRO’s complaint names editors for “propagating militant ideology” but does not say that it is directed against the very editors who have spoken out against the Bill. The editors, therefore, feel it is an attack against free speech and freedom of the press, and more an “arm-twisting tactic”.
“If government continues to ignore their blatant, violent propaganda, it will continue to create new militants with fresh blood in Assam and situation will worsen during Lok Sabha elections. On numerous occasions of recent past, all media outlets mentioned here have openly professed the need to take up arms to fight against central government and broadcasting propaganda videos of ULFA cadres along with telephonic interviews of absconding ULFA chief,” it stated.
Saikia, Bhuyan and Mahanta have been vocal critics of the Bill. The BJP has faced stiff opposition and protests over the Bill.
Joshi, the complainant, worked with the RSS in Meghalaya until 2010 and now lives in Guwahati. He said he is no longer actively associated with the RSS and the LRO is an “independent legal activism” body. On Facebook, the LRO describes itself as a “voluntary organisation zealously dealing with the matters pertaining to violation of fundamental rights of Army, Police and society in general”.
Joshi told The Indian Express: “These journalists and their media houses spread militant ideology continuously. If they continue doing so Assam will burn. We have no comments or issues with the dissent against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. That’s their constitutional and democratic right to oppose the Bill. But under the garb of that, why are they spreading militant ideology? This is objectionable and shameful.”
Reacting to the development, Prag News’s Bhuyan told The Indian Express, “The man who made this complaint is associated with the RSS. This is an attack on free press and freedom of speech. Whoever does not take their dictation, the ruling class tendency is to come after them…. We protested the CAB strongly and mobilised public opinion against it. They saw that people listened to us and hence they took this step. This is also a message to others, an attempt to create fear psychosis.”
Mahanta said: “They are losing the ground beneath their feet. They are trying to suppress voices of people and the right to express one’s thoughts… it is very easy to stamp whosoever questions the state or the government as having allegiance to an insurgent group.”
InsideNE’s Hussain said she was a “victim of witch-hunting by people who have tried to influence” independent and impartial journalism. She said she refused to “budge” and “therefore, they have come with such arm-twisting tactics”.