In the run up to the Assam government’s mega Bihu celebrations, which took place on April 13 and April 14, confusion reigned over one question: Would the government charge for tickets to the event, or would it be free?
This led to a political war of words, and eventually a court case in which a digital news organisation’s alleged role is being probed.
The Rs 100 crore event was billed as the largest Bihu performance ever, involving over 11,000 performers, aimed at entering the Guinness Book of World Records. The media blitz surrounding preparations, which went on for about a month, spotlighted each and every detail, from the venue to the performers.
Amid the buzz, the social media handle of a local news channel, Prag News, said on April 9 that there was a “probability” that the passes for the event at Guwahati’s Sarusajai Stadium may not be free.
“The Sarusajai Bihu may not be free!” the post said. “Tickets will be issued at Kalakshetra from April 11 to 13, the chief minister said.”
The following day, AAP Assam spokesperson Sushanta Kumar Nath accused the state government of doing business in the name of Bihu. “The government should instead be given a Guinness World Record for selling tickets to watch Bihu,” he in a statement to Prag News.
The Assam government on April 11 that entry would be free. And AAP spokesperson Nath was after Assam police’s crime branch swung into action and lodged an FIR in the matter for criminal conspiracy, promoting enmity between different groups and public mischief.
By the night of April 12, Prag News digital editor Jitumoni Bora also received a notice from the crime branch to appear before it and “ascertain facts and circumstances” in connection with the case.
Hours before Bora was served the notice, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had held a press conference pinning the blame for the talks around selling the tickets on Prag News, citing that one of the accused arrested in the matter had confessed to seeing the news on the channel’s digital platform. Nath had allegedly confessed to it.
On April 13, Bora was interrogated by the crime branch over the news channel’s social media post for two hours.
However, it wasn’t just Prag News that had reported on the possibility of the Bihu event being ticketed. Axom Live 24X7 that “there will be tickets for the event.”
Bora told Newslaundry that the social media post came after Sarma said at a that there will be passes to attend the mega event. “There was no clarity. So, we also made the poster about a possibility,” Bora said. “I did nothing wrong. I did not say there will be a fee. The poster was talking about a possibility. What could I do if somebody misread our poster? Could this be a reason for summoning someone?”
He said when the government clarified that there would be no fee for the tickets, subsequent news reports were , announcing the government’s decision. “When there was no clarity, we wrote about the probability. When it was clarified, we carried the government’s clarification that there will be no fee for entry. How can it be a crime?” he asked.
Upamanyu Hazarika, a Supreme Court lawyer, said that issue was an “innocuous” one and cannot invoke “drastic” provisions such as creating enmity.
“To use such innocuous cases for silencing political opponents and more importantly silencing the press is a pernicious exercise of power and this is not the only instance, there are several,” said Hazarika. “These facts can at best furnish a cause of action for instituting a defamation proceeding at the highest, whose maintainability is highly doubtful.”
Newslaundry tried to reach out to AAP spokesperson Nath for a comment. This report will be updated if a response is received.
Guwahati police commissioner Diganta Bora refused to comment on the matter over the phone. He asked this reporter to come to his office for details.
‘Frustrated, negative-minded, pigs’: Assam govt
The mega Bihu celebrations in Assam, pitched as an attempt to take the festival global, has been marred by controversies. have alleged poor facilities for performers, sparking questions around misuse of public funds, leading to criticism from various quarters. In its response, the government has labelled critics as “” and “”, even comparing some to “”.
Pictures of performers sleeping on the floor have been widely circulated on social media. Some performers also about the lack of facilities at their accommodation and venues. Amid the controversy, a post on social media by another TV news channel NKTV suggested that cabinet minister Ashok Singhal had compared performers to pigs.
As his statements drew condemnation from the opposition, Singhal back. He said: “Congress and its leaders are always at the forefront of false propaganda and lies...The pig affair is completely true for negative thinkers like you.”