“Another step towards the sun of freedom, once again I will commit treason.”
This single sentence, written in Assamese and posted on Facebook, is the reason why a mathematics undergraduate has languished in jail for nearly two months now. It was construed as support for the banned separatist outfit United Liberation Front of Assam Independent and a case was subsequently filed under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
However, Barshashree Buragohain, 19, a student at Jorhat’s Devi Charan Baruah Girls’ College who has been lodged in the Golaghat district jail since her arrest on May 18, was on Thursday allowed by a district court to sit for her second semester exams beginning Friday, amid mounting criticism of her imprisonment from opposition parties and student organisations.
While Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma Barshashree was arrested not for her Facebook post but because she wanted to join ULFA, and that she would be released if the family gave an undertaking that she would never do so, the FIR seen by Newslaundry clearly refers to the social media post. The FIR claims the Facebook post was in support of ULFA and Barshashree thereby was involved in a “criminal conspiracy” and a bid to “wage war against the Indian government”.
But there was no mention of the banned outfit in her Facebook post as pointed out by lawyers who spoke to Newslaundry.
According to the FIR, Barshashree has been booked under provisions of the anti-terror law UAPA that are applicable to whoever in “any way assists the operations of such association” or whoever “advocates, abets, advises or incites the commission of, any unlawful activity”.
Amid demands to release the student, Assam’s Special DGP GP Singh on Wednesday tweeted, “There’s a specific call to indulge in waging war against the state in her Facebook post…When someone publicly professes support for a banned organisation and declares the intent of waging war against the Indian state, we are legally bound to prosecute that person. Following due process, charge sheet shall be filed in a competent court of law. Let the law take its own.”
However, lawyer Angshuman Borah told Newslaundry that neither of the provisions invoked against the student could be applied to the case. “The materials in her case are not sufficient to invoke these sections…In her case, she has not said anything to anybody specifically. How can they presume it?”
Borah said there was no mention of ULFA in the Facebook post. “She is not a member of the banned organisation...she is not advocating or instigating someone to join the banned organisation…neither she is facilitating the organisation financially, nor she is attending the meeting…So, the FIR on the basis of which she was arrested doesn't have any of these links and hence both these sections cannot be applicable.”
When Newslaundry reached out to Barshshree’s counsel Atul Dihingia, he refused to comment as the matter is sub-judice.
‘Sudden arrest’ of an ‘aware student’
While Thursday’s court order brought some relief to the student’s family, her brother Arindam Buragohain, a journalist working with a local news channel, narrated the family’s ordeal in a conversation with Newslaundry.
He said the teenage student was “suddenly arrested” from a friend’s house in Golaghat on May 17. “Police informed us that she was detained as she wrote social media posts and poems supporting ULFA-I and she would be released soon after they do her counselling.”
But when their ageing father, a farmer, went to the police station the next day, he found out that she had been arrested and the family have since been running from pillar to post to secure her release. Arindam said the family was worried whether Barshashree would be able to sit for her exams since a bail hearing in her case was scheduled for July 21 in the Gauhati High Court.
Kukila Goswami, head of the mathematics department at Barshashree’s college, said her second semester classes started in April and Barshashree could only write her first mid-term exams. “She could not write her second mid-term as she was in jail. Even if she is now allowed to sit in the semester exam, that would make no difference as she has not been able to study or attend classes for the last two months.”
Goswami said Barshashree was a meritorious student. “The reason why she was arrested is shocking. She is like any other young mind who is aware of social issues…expressed her grievances through writing poems and posts on Facebook. That cannot be a crime.”
Meanwhile, opposition parties and student outfits have demanded Barshashree’s immediate release.
“In a democracy, protests have different forms…can a poem be treason?” Mira Borthakur, president of the Assam Pradesh Mahila Congress, told Newslaundry. “Even if police thought she would join ULFA-I, they should have counselled her rather than giving her a harsh punishment like this. Is such imprisonment going to motivate her?” Borthakur asked.
Kamal Kumar Tanti, a Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar awardee, termed the arrest a “part of the well-designed programme of terrorising and victimising young students throughout India, thereby snatching away their rights to ask valid questions”.
Dipankar Nath, president of the All Assam Students’ Union, the state’s largest students’ union, on Thursday said, “Our only demand is that she should be freed immediately.”
Pranjal Kalita, General Secretary of Satra Mukti Sangram Samiti, slammed the Assam police. “Since Himanta Biswa Sarma has become chief minister, more than 400 youths reportedly went to join ULFA. While all the intelligence of Assam Police failed in these cases, they could only be successful in Barshashree’s case. Is it not questionable?”
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