The detention of Kishorechandra Wangkhem, an Imphal-based television journalist, under the National Security Act (NSA), for criticising Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, is bizzare. The NSA is a legal instrument that must be wielded with utmost care and caution and only in extreme cases. Wangkhem’s criticism of CM Biren Singh, expressed in videos uploaded on social media, constitutes no threat to national security. The state government must immediately withdraw the sedition charges against the journalist and release him from prison.
Wangkhem has reportedly used impolite language in his criticism of the government. He ridiculed the state government for commemorating Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi and for comparing her battles with the British forces to Manipur’s freedom struggle and described the chief minister as a “puppet of Hindutva”. CM Biren Singh has defended the detention claiming that Wangkhem has humiliated “national heroes” such as Rani of Jhansi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The farce does not stop with him. The Imphal district magistrate who ordered the detention said that Wangkhem’s criticism of the commemoration of Rani Laxmibai amounted to supporting terrorist outfits in Manipur and was, hence, seditious. The NSA board, which decides whether the law can be invoked against the accused, as well as Governor Najma Heptullah, appear to be in agreement with the government and the magistrate.
No one seems to be able to state the obvious: Wangkhem’s manner of criticism may have been in poor taste, but that is no reason to slap sedition charges on him or club him with extremists who advocate violent overthrow of the state. The Supreme Court has unambiguously stated that only a call for a “violent revolution” against the state constitutes sedition. The sedition law, an instrument devised by the colonial administration to check freedom fighters, is an anachronism in a democracy. In the Wangkhem case, every institution and office that ought to have stood up for the individual’s right to free speech and checked the abuse of state power failed.
As a public figure, the chief minister cannot claim immunity from criticism. Certainly, criticism of the government must not be confused for sedition. The Biren Singh government’s action has brought the focus on to the abuse of the sedition law as well as the NSA and reinforces the need to look at the working of such laws which give the state draconian powers to clamp down on criticism and dissent.