Hours after the Supreme Court ordered the release “forthwith” of Leichombam Erendro, the Manipuri political activist walked out of Manipur Central Jail, Sajiwa, on Monday evening.
Erendro was detained in May under the National Security Act (NSA), allegedly over his comments on Facebook criticising claims that cow dung and cow urine are effective in preventing or treating Covid-19.
A bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah accepted Solicitor General Tushar Mehta’s request that the hearing be deferred to Tuesday, but said Erendro’s continued detention would amount to a violation of his fundamental rights.
The court directed that Erendro be released “on or before 5 pm today”, and asked the court’s Registrar (Judicial) to communicate a copy of its order “forthwith to the Manipur Central Jail, Sajiwa”.
“On the request of Mr Tushar Mehta, learned Solicitor General of India, we direct that the proceedings be listed tomorrow (20.7.2021),” the court ordered.
“In the meantime, having prima facie considered the contents of the petition, we are of the view that the continued detention of the petitioner before this Court would amount to a violation of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution. We accordingly direct that the petitioner shall be released forthwith as and by way of an interim direction of this Court, unless he is required to be in custody in any other case, subject to further orders, subject to his filing a personal release bond in the amount of Rs 1000.”
The court was hearing a plea filed by Erendro’s father L Raghumani Singh who contended that his son, who is also the co-convener of the political outfit Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance, was detained “solely to punish him” for his criticism of BJP leaders purportedly advocating cow dung and cow urine as cures for Covid-19.
Erendro, who was greeted by his 58-year-old mother, Leichombam Landhoni, as he emerged from detention, told The Indian Express that he had “mixed feelings” about his release.
“I’m happy, of course, but another person who was imprisoned with me on the same day…on the same charges is still detained. My celebration seems incomplete without that,” he said.
Police had picked up the 40-year-old activist on May 13, along with journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem, 41, for their posts on Facebook on the death of the state BJP chief, retired professor S Tikendra Singh, from Covid. Both men were booked under the NSA on May 17.
Erendro’s post had said: “The cure for Corona is not cow dung & cow urine. The cure is science & common sense. Professor ji RIP.”
Appearing for the petitioner, Advocate Shadan Farasat said the preventive detention clause under the NSA had been invoked in a case where not even simple penal provisions were required.
“The statement (by Erendro) was made in the context of the death of the President of the Manipur BJP due to COVID-19, as a criticism of the unscientific position taken and misinformation being spread by several BJP politicians regarding cow urine and cow dung being effective in preventing/treating COVID-19,” the petition said.
It argued that “the present case is a shocking instance of misuse of preventive detention law to stifle completely innocuous speech that is fully constitutionally protected and was made in public interest — Erendro, a Manipuri political activist, has been preventively detained solely to punish him for his criticism of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders for advocating cow dung and cow urine as cures for COVID-19”.
This was not the first time that Erendro, who has a postgraduate degree in public administration from Harvard University and is a former associate of activist Irom Sharmila, had been arrested.
In August 2020, a case of sedition was filed against him over a Facebook comment on a picture of Sanajaoba Leishemba, then newly elected Rajya Sabha MP, greeting Home Minister Amit Shah. Erendro spent a day in police custody.
Earlier in May 2018, he spent about 17 days in custody for refusing to take down a video purportedly showing some Bihari youngsters allegedly threatening Manipuris.
“There is no free press in Manipur. So the only medium which is not within the government’s control right now is social media, so that is why they are coming down hard on it,” Erendro said on Monday.
“But it is counterproductive because you can’t control social media. You can’t silence everybody. When I speak out, it is not just my opinion, but what I say resonates with the people of Manipur and that is precisely what they (the government) are scared of,” he said.
“This is not the first time they have slapped all sorts of charges on me including sedition, NSA. But that is not going to stop me from expressing my opinion. It is within my right as a citizen to critique the government — this is a democracy.”
Several people have been arrested in Manipur for criticising the Biren Singh-led government.
In April 2020, public criticism of the government’s handling of the Covid outbreak led some people to be booked under sections of the Disaster Management Act, as well as sedition. JNU research scholar Mohammad Chingiz Khan and Gauhati University assistant professor Mohammad Imtiyaj Khan were charged with sedition for the translation of an opinion article on Manipuri Muslims. Journalist Wangkhem was in prison from December 2018 to April 2019 for alleged derogatory comments against the government and the Chief Minister.