In Manipur, at least five are detained for questioning government handling of Covid-19 crisis

https://scroll.in/article/958867/in-manipur-at-least-five-are-detained-for-questioning-government-handling-of-covid-19-crisis

On April 9, the Manipur government divested Deputy Chief Minister Yumnam Joykumar Singh of all his portfolios. He had allegedly described Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren Singh’s assurance that the state’s people would be assured of food supplies during the 21-day national lockdown to prevent the spread of Covd-19 as “gibberish” and “hogwash”.

Joykumar Singh told Scroll.in that he was provoked into using those words by workers of the Bharatiya Janata Party, who then secretly recorded him. “It’s a conspiracy of the BJP,” said Joykumar Singh, who belongs to the National People’s Party, an alliance partner of the BJP in Manipur.

Joykumar Singh said his party, which has four legislators in the Manipur Assembly, would withdraw support to the government if he was not reinstated by April 15.

An official in the chief minister’s office confirmed that Chief Minister Biren Singh’s decision was triggered by Joykumar Singh’s outburst. “He was humiliated publicly so the BJP MLAs insisted that some action should be taken,” said the official, who did not want to be identified.

The punitive move against Joykumar Singh is only the latest in a string of incidents suggesting that the Manipur government will brook no criticism of the way it handles the coronavirus crisis and the lockdown to contain it.

Over the last couple of weeks, the state police have arrested or detained at least five people for questioning the government, especially the chief minister.

Arrested for a press release

On April 1, the police detained and then arrested Takhenchangbam Shadishkanta, a human rights activist. Hours earlier, Shadishkanta’s organisation, Youth’s Forum for Protection of Human Rights, had issued a press release expressing concern about the government’s plans to build a quarantine centre on the outskirts of Imphal, the state capital. This was to house people who had come in contact with suspected Covid-19 patients but were asymptomatic.

“The location they had chosen has many paddy fields,” said U Jenison, a colleague of Shadishkanta. “As we work for the rights of indigenous people who are dependent on paddy farming, we asked them to build it on a nearby unused airstrip instead.”

Jenison alleged that Shadishkanta was picked up by the police from his home late evening on April 1. The police did not inform him or his family of the charges against him, said Jenison. Shadishkanta spent the night in jail.

On the afternoon of April 2, the police visited the home of the organisation’s president, Khangjrakpam Phajaton Mangang, picked him up and jailed him along with Shadishkanta. Mangangwas not apprised of the charges against him, either, claimed Jenison.

The police made the two sign an arrest memo that did not bear the time or grounds of arrest, he alleged. When a team from the human rights organisation demanded that they be shown the first information report that was the basis for the arrests, they were reportedly told that the police were still in the process of framing charges. That was on the evening of April 2.

It was only later in the evening that the police produced an FIR, said Jenison. The two activists had been charged under the National Disaster Management Act, 2005, and Section 120 (b) of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with “criminal conspiracy”.

Soon afterwards, around 9.30 pm, Mangang and Shadishkanta were produced before the court of the chief judicial magistrate, East Imphal. They were released around 10 pm, after they produced a surety bond of Rs 30,000 each.

Jogeshchandra Haobijam, the chief of Imphal East police, said Mangang and Shadishkanta had been charged for suggesting the use of the air strip as a site for the quarantine centre. “It is defence land,” he said. “Any X or Y cannot say like that about defence land.”

Takhenchangbam Shadishkanta of the Youth’s Forum for Protection of Human Rights. Credit: Facebook

Detained for Facebook posts

Shadishkanta had company at the Porompat police station on the night of April 1 – Konsam Victor Singh, an employee at a government-run college in Imphal who had also been picked up from his home that evening.

When he asked the police officials why he was being detained, they told him it was related to a Facebook post he had written the previous day, claimed Victor Singh.

The post, written in the Meeteilon language, read: “CM covid-19 relief fund da CM Biren masagi oiba lupa kaya hapkhi khangbiba yaobibaro?” Does anybody know how much has Chief Minister Biren contributed to the CM Covid-19 relief fund?

At the police station, officials told him that there was “pressure from the chief minister’s side” to take action against him, said Victor Singh. “They told me I had no choice but to spend the night in lock-up,” he said.

There were no formal charges against him. The next morning, according to Victor Singh, the police told him he would be released if he deleted his Facebook post and posted an apology on the site. “I had spent the night with six other people in a small cell in the time of Covid-19, so I did what they asked me to,” he said.

He was released after he posted a new update on his Facebook page. It read: “I am deleting this post. I don’t have any negative intention towards the CM of Manipur.”

Haobijam declined comment on Victor Singh’s detention.

Two days later, on April 3, Laifungbam Debabrata Roy, a rights activist and a public health physician, was picked up from his home. At the police station, Roy said, he was asked to explain a Facebook post he had written the previous day.

It read: “The present Manipur Chief Minister, especially at this time of crisis, should desist from wasting State resources, time and personnel in carrying out any personal political agenda or vendetta. It demeans and belittles the position occupied and the responsibility that entails.”

Roy said he told the police official interrogating him that the post did not make any personal attack on the chief minister or his colleagues: “I told them it was just encouraging them not to waste time in pursuing other agenda in a time like this.”

Roy said he also wrote down his explanation, as demanded by the police. Yet they insisted that he had to spend the night in prison.

When his lawyer asked for a formal FIR, the police reportedly furnished a draft FIR that charged Roy under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code, a section that deals with actions that amount to “disobedience to follow order promulgated by public servant”. However, the FIR was not registered.

The next day, Roy was released after the police made a video of him reading out an apology note to the chief minister.

Imphal West police superintendent, K Meghachandra Singh, said Roy had accused the government of “wasting its resources”. “So, we had an interaction with him and released him on bail bond,” said the police official.

Laifungbam Debabrata Roy

Jailed for an article

On April 8, Mohammed Chingiz Khan, a Phd scholar from Manipur, was arrested for an article that appeared under his name in a Manipuri daily on April 5. He has been charged under Sections 124 A, 153 A, 505, 120 B of the Indian Penal Code.

These sections deal with charges of “criminal conspiracy”, inciting “disaffection towards the government”, promoting enmity between communities and intent to cause to “mutiny” in the armed forces.

The article, which appeared in Meeteilon, related to the supposed marginalisation of Manipuri Muslims, locally known as Pangals. According to Khan’s cousin, Mohammand Sarwar Rahman, it was the Manipuri translation of an English article that Khan had co-written for the Delhi-based daily, The Pioneer, last year. The article, entitled “Pangals victim of manufactured insecurity” was published in The Pioneer on April 7, 2019.

Police officer Meghachandra Singh said the title of the article was “inflammatory”, particularly as the state was planning to initiate action against people who had concealed their visit to the religious convention held by the Tablighi Jamat in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area. Many who attended the convention later tested positive for Covid-19.

“The article crossed the line – it could incite unrest between communities,” Meghachandra Singh said. “The editor [of the Manipuri daily] has also realised that and apologised to us.”

The headline of the Meeteilon version of the article roughly translates to “A political ploy to drive out Muslims.”

According to Khan’s cousin, Rahman, the article was not translated by Khan, nor was the headline his. “It was the editor who reached out to him,” he said.

Mohammad Ayub Khan, the editor of the daily, could not be reached for comment.

Mohammed Chingiz Khan

Scared journalists

The recent spate of arrests and detentions have sent ripples of fear across media and activist circles in Manipur. “We are in a very precarious situation – freedom of speech has really shrunk,” said a leading journalist from Manipur who did not want to named, fearing state reprisal. “It began with the Kishorechandra Wangkhem incident and it continues.”

Wangkhem, a Manipuri journalist, was charged under the National Security Act in 2018 after he posted a Facebook video critical of Biren Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“The firing of his own deputy,” the journalist continued, “is a shining example of the chief minister’s inability to tolerate any kind of criticism.”

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