When the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government first came to power in Manipur, for many people, it was as if the light at the end of the tunnel was finally visible. The government took certain steps that boded well for public sentiment, including setting up an anti-corruption cell, the chief minister meeting the public every month and lending an ear to disadvantaged citizens.
Some time down the line, the first major hiccup was the Manipur University impasse. Agitations stalled the academic calendar for more than four months, demanding the ouster of vice-chancellor AP Pandey. Protests flared when the state government ordered the police to raid the university campus at midnight. Students and teachers were arrested. That was a low blow, and the wounds are still fresh.
However, matters were settled by releasing them from jail and everything got back to being hunky-dory. Until the time when the state began intimidating civilians for posting updates on social media that target and criticise the BJP or the chief minister. Journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem was one of the first victims. On Facebook, he had posted a photo of a rally and protest calling for normalcy to return to the Manipur University. He stated that the rally was organised by the BJP, terming it the “Budhu Joker Party”.
That was the first time he was arrested. Manipur’s state media objected to the arrest by going to the chief minister’s bungalow and taking out a protest rally. The president of the All Manipur Working Journalists Union “put his foot down” by apologising to the chief minister on behalf of Kishorchandra. Afterwards, the “King” raised his hand and the man was put in judicial custody for five days.
Perhaps, this is why the local media had kept mum on Kishorchandra’s second arrest—for the benevolence shown then. With the dilapidated government machinery working overtime to frame Kishorchandra under charges of sedition, some of us had renewed trust in the judicial system when the judge let him walk. That lasted just one day since 24 hours later, Kishorchandra was arrested from his residence for the third time. This time, he was arrested under the National Security Act. In short, the government had to have its way and Kishorchandra has been detained for a maximum period of 12 months. Lo and behold, 365 days of incarceration for criticising the government, with a dash of expletives.
This is the first time that the BJP-led government and the chief minister are getting such “good” publicity from the national media. You see, the local media here must write only good things, a big thumbs-up to national media houses for doing otherwise. Recently, India Today conducted a poll ranking chief ministers in the country. Our own chief minister N Biren Singh was ranked the third best out of 23 states. The media here along with the head of the state celebrated as if he won the third best position in the entire country.
The celebrations continued with full festive glory till it was pointed out that N Biren Singh no longer featured in the top three spots. The poll was, after all, ongoing. In Episode 8, the host of the show, Rahul Kanwal, announced that the chief ministers of the northeast were removed since a comparison of the relative popularity of chief ministers cannot be done between bigger states and smaller states. For printing what the show had explained, Imphal Free Press was slapped with a criminal defamation suit. The case is underway.
It is safe to say one knows where the popularity of our chief minister stands, given the present circumstances—third best or an ersatz one! The moot question is why the state government is trampling on the public’s constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression. There seems to be no immediate answer. Or perhaps one is too confused—perhaps being brazen and wanting to hold on to power has corrupted minds, and one has become the oppressor instead of protecting the oppressed.
Also, how will the BJP top brass take this issue? Are such arbitrary arrests in the interest of the saffron brigade? Will votes pour in from the public in the next elections? Will the public sing songs of praise to the BJP for gagging our mouths? Former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju called the chief minister “a little dictator”. Will it be advisable to slap the National Security Act against him, too?
Condemnations have poured in from outside that we plebeians here cannot utter or post on social media without courting arrest. The chief minister may need to put on his thinking cap and let democracy prevail in Manipur, lest the Kishorchandra issue becomes his Waterloo.