The prickliness to even a shadow of criticism is taking on absurd proportions in Manipur. The BJP government in the state has slapped the National Security Act (NSA) on journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem and activist Erendro Leichombam for Facebook posts that point out that cow dung or urine cannot cure COVID-19, while commenting on the death of a state BJP leader from the virus. Stating that fact — and warning against the dangers of superstition and quackery — is far from being an offence, leave alone being “prejudicial to the security of the state and to the maintenance of public order”. In the middle of a pandemic, to wield a draconian law on citizens for such minor provocations speaks of the government’s paranoia — but also illustrates that state abuse of laws such as the NSA or the sedition law has now become a worrying habit.
Both Wangkhem and Leichombam have been part of such trials before. The latter faced sedition charges for a Facebook post last year. In December 2018, Wangkhem was booked under the NSA for an allegedly abusive video against Chief Minister N Biren Singh. Despite an outcry, he spent four months in prison before the Manipur High Court struck down his detention. In April last year, several people were booked under the Disaster Management Act and a handful on sedition charges for criticism of the state government’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak. Bad ideas of governance travel well. This year, Uttar Pradesh has shown similar alacrity in clamping down on messengers of Covid bad news.
The Indian state’s weak capacity when it comes to the delivery of public goods like education and health stands brutally exposed by the second wave of this pandemic. But the political class’s propensity for the “strong leader” syndrome grows by the day. It is also evident in the excessive use of force by the police — disproportionately on those without caste, class privileges — even to punish minor lockdown violations. But the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic do not license an extraordinary heavy hand, nor the unchecked and wanton use of laws with sweeping powers. The N Biren Singh government must not make a mockery of law and democracy by using the NSA to send a signal to those who dissent against it. It must drop the charges against Wangkhem and Leichombam.