“I don't think I questioned the integrity of the government nor did I try to create a mob against the government. I didn’t do any of it, I just chronicled whatever happened.”
This is what Silchar-based journalist Anirban Roy Choudhury, 30, said to Newslaundry soon after his one-hour interrogation by the Cachar police this morning. Choudhury, who was booked for sedition on Saturday over an editorial he wrote, was released on a personal recognisance bond, which is when a judge allows a defendant to be released without any deposit or collateral.
The in question was in the context of the arrest of Pradip Dutta Roy. It was published on November 28 in Barak Bulletin, a multilingual news portal that Choudhury has run since 2018.
For context: Roy is the founder of the Barak Democratic Front, a political party. Last month, he had issued an ultimatum over a government hoarding written in Assamese, saying it violated the Assam Official Language Act. , the act has “special provisions for the use of Bengali for official purposes in the Barak Valley districts”.
Roy was charged with sedition, among others charges. Barak Bulletin published an editorial headlined, “Welcome to the paradise of the spineless – we are Assamese, ‘Bhasha Shaheeds’ are dead and so are their descendants”.
Interestingly, and unlike the website’s other editorials, a disclaimer at the end of the editorial stated: “The responsibility of this editorial lies with Anirban Roy Choudhury.”
On December 1, a complaint against Choudhury was filed by Santanu Sutradhar, a member of All Assam Bengali Hindu Association – described by its Facebook page as a “movement for Hindu Bengalis in Assam”. Sutradhar, who said he had filed the complaint in his personal capacity, claimed Choudhury’s editorial could “hamper the brotherhood between the Bengali and Assamese of Assam”.
Choudhury was then charged under section 124(A), pertaining to sedition, of the Indian Penal Code, as well as sections 153(A) and 501/505(2).
The editorial and the complaint
Choudhury told Newslaundry that by writing the editorial, he had exercised his right to freedom of speech and expression as enshrined by Article 19A of the constitution.
“Before publication, I considered the reasonable restrictions and I don’t think I have violated any,” he said. “So, I stand by my article and I will continue to take part in the legal proceedings.”
Why did this particular editorial have a disclaimer, considering Barak Bulletin’s other editorials do not?
“Barak Bulletin has always received backlash for what we’ve written,” Choudhury said. “I expected more backlash this time, which is why I categorically mentioned that the whole responsibility rests with me, as I didn’t want the rest of the Barak Bulletin investors to get into trouble.”
So, what was it about the editorial that made him anticipate backlash?
Choudhury said the context of his editorial was the Assam Official Languages Act of 1961.
“Eleven individuals risked their lives in 1961 to secure an amendment to the languages act that mandated that the government and the administration use Bengali as the official language throughout the length and breadth of Cachar,” he explained. “Recently, there was a where a government of India poster about free vaccination was published in the Assamese language. Barak Democratic Front’s chief convenor Pradip Dutta Roy raised his voice and urged the government to take action.”
His editorial, he said, had been prompted by the lack of public outcry in Barak Valley following Roy’s arrest.
Talking about Santanu Sutradhar, the complainant in the case, Choudhury said that while he has never spoken to him in person, the name has been a regular feature in the comments section of Barak Bulletin’s articles.
He said, “I've never met him before but he has sent me written threats and I have those with me. He threatened to file an FIR against me and called me ‘Mir Jafar’ and went on and on with these allegations.”
Choudhury, whose previous work experience includes NDTV and Financial Express, told Newslaundry he’s concerned about how the case will affect his career prospects. Referring to Barak Bulletin as a “bootstrapping venture”, he said he founded it with the aim of “taking the Barak Valley to the world”. The team comprises eight reporters.
‘Not down, never out’
Sankar Dey, the general secretary of the Silchar Press Club, told Newslaundry that the sedition case against Choudhury is the “first of its kind in the Barak Valley since the Emergency”.
“Silchar Press Club has taken the matter of Anirban’s arrest very seriously,” he said. “But this sedition case that has been imposed by police is most objectionable and it must be withdrawn at any cost. Otherwise we will have no option but to resort to agitational programmes.”
Dey added, “The media is under pressure now. The move is a threat against Anirban Roy Choudhry and so, all media in the Barak Valley are united to face the problem.”
Choudhury said he anticipates a long road ahead.
“Since it's a criminal proceeding that has started, I think I’ll have to move to higher court so the legal due course will be a long drawn one,” he said. “But Barak Bulletin will continue to write the articles that it does.”
Following the complaint, Barak Bulletin issued a statement, saying, “Barak Bulletin will cooperate with the police as much as possible. At the same time, we assure, threats, cases or beyond, independent journalism will continue. Not down. Never out!”