Editors detained, citizens booked for Facebook posts: Manipur’s crackdown on dissent

Paojel Chaoba and Dhiren Sadokpam, two Imphal-based editors of The Frontier Manipur, were detained on 17 January and booked for sedition. Courtesy Paojel Chaoba and Dhiren Sadokpam
31 January, 2021

On 17 January, two Imphal-based editors of The Frontier Manipur, a news portal, were detained for an article published online. Dhiren Sadokpam, the editor in chief, and Paojel Chaoba, the executive editor were taken into police custody and booked for sedition and criminal conspiracy. They were also charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. M Joy Luwang, an independent contributor and the author of the article, was also charged under these sections.

 The article titled “Revolutionary journey in a mess,” was published on 8 January. It took stock of and criticised the “armed revolutionary movement” in Manipur, a reference to an armed secessionist movement in the state since the 1960s. The article outlined the “mistakes committed by armed revolutionary leaders from 1990 to 2008.” It noted that “revolutionary groups competed against each other” instead of establishing a “people’s political movement.” It further accused the armed groups of falling “prey to the Indian government’s design of breaking their backbones.”

In a first information report filed at the Singjamei police station in the Imphal West district, the police stated that the article supported revolutionary groups. “The author openly endorsed revolutionary ideologies and activities and expressed shock and dismay at the deteriorating character of the armed revolutionary leaders of Manipur,” the FIR said. “He called out to the people of Manipur to become true revolutionaries.” The FIR continued, “His article clearly expressed sympathy and support to the ideologies and activities of armed revolutionary groups and out rightly called the Rule of Law of the Union and the State Government as Colonial Law thereby attempting to bring hatred, contempt and feeling of enmity against Rule of Law.” The FIR added that the article is likely to cause “fear or alarm to the public inducing them to commit an offence against the State thereby posing serious threats of internal security issues.”

The police asked the editors for information about the author of the article. The editors told me that they informed the police that they did not know the author and had merely received the article on WhatsApp. Both the editors were kept in police custody on 17 January and released the next day. The detention of the editors is part of a pattern in Manipur of intimidation by law and curtailing speech and writing that is seen to be against the government.

Chaoba said he was detained on 17 January at around 12:30 pm.  According to Chaoba, the police told him that he was not being produced in court the next day because members of the All Manipur Working Journalists Union had approached N Biren Singh, Manipur’s chief minister, and Singh had said the editors would be released.

Chaoba added that members of the AMWJU and the Manipur Editors Guild asked him to write a letter to K Meghachandra Singh, the Imphal West superintendent of police, stating that the editors did not know the author M Joy Luwang. “So I wrote that letter and I was released,” Chaoba told me. In the letter to the SP, Chaoba stated the source of the article was “unverified” and that it was an “oversight” to publish it. However, Chaoba questioned the entire process. “How come everything is surpassed, how can a man just be let go by saying I do not know this Joy Luwang?” Chaoba said. He asked how a person charged with sedition can be “freed with a declaration”? He added, “There has been a travesty in conducting this investigation by not letting me come before the judge. How can the chief minister on his whim let somebody go? The chief minister is using the law to curtail free voice and the freedom of the media.”

I spoke to P Sanjay, the officer in charge of the Singjamei police station. He stated that the editors were detained for one night. “The All Manipur Working Journalists Union approached the SP,” he said. “I don't know what they had in the meeting with them but SP gave me an instruction just to release.” 

Both the editors told me that they believed their detention was part of a larger crackdown on freedom of speech and dissent in Manipur, and that they were targeted for speaking up against the government. “We are the only ones who are speaking up against the atrocities, the favouritisms, the corruption and being anti-establishment,” Chaoba said. “I think we got in the bad books of the government. They were waiting for the right time to pounce on us.”

Referring to Chaoba, Sadokpam said, “I think the political bigwigs have a problem with our executive editor, it was quite apparent. He has been very critical about the current government for quite some time so I think they were targeting him.”

Sadokpam added that even if “there is a small critical comment, the government doesn’t take it lightly.” He continued, “They are not even dissenting voices, they are differing voices, differing from the state and government. Some of these views are not seditious, dissent or rebellious, it is just a critical comment.” Sadokpam added that the editors’ detention could have a chilling effect on young journalists. “We will continue to do our job, but I am afraid for the young fledgling journalists and reporters, they will be all frightened,” he said.

According to a report in Article 14, an online news portal, since 1 April 2020, the Manipur government has filed cases against at least 13 people “who used social or print media to express their unhappiness over the government.”

On 27 July last year, Usham Manglem, a 23-year-old resident of Imphal was arrested after a suo moto case was registered against him for social media posts criticising the government. The police did not specify which post he was arrested for. Manglem, who was released on bail four days later, said that he was booked under sections of the Indian penal code pertaining to promoting enmity between different groups, intentionally insulting with intent to provoke breach of peace and criminal intimidation.

According to Manglem, at around 10:30 pm on 26 July, a police team from the Imphal police station came to Manglem’s house asking for him. His family told the police he was not at home. He then received a call from Ingocha Nongthombam, the officer-in-charge. “The OC called me up and said I know you are there, delete the posts. I said which post, I have many posts in my Facebook account and he hung up.”

The next morning, a sub inspector came to Manglem’s home and asked him to go to the Imphal police station. Manglem went to the police station at 9 am. He said he was detained there and arrested later that evening. Referring to the police, Manglem said, “They warned me to delete the posts but I told them give me in writing then I will delete it.” He continued, “Even the OC himself told me to apologise to the chief minister and delete the posts, but I said why should I apologise, if you want me to delete give me in written.”

Manglem said he had been writing Facebook posts critical of the Bharatiya Janata Party government for the last two years, and he could not tell which posts he was being arrested for. He believed the trigger may have been a post critical of the chief minister. “I was arrested because I posted against the chief minister,” he said. “I didn’t post directly but it was sarcasm type.” In that post, he referred to the chief minister as “cheap minister.”

On 31 July, Manglem said he was produced in the Imphal West Magistrate court. According to Manglem, when the judge questioned the police on why they had arrested him, the police said the directions came from higher authorities. Meanwhile, Manglem refused to delete any of his posts. “I have not deleted anything because there is nothing wrong with that,” he told me. A few months after his arrest, Manglem joined the Congress party and was appointed as a district social media coordinator in the Manipur Pradesh Youth Congress.

I spoke to Ingocha Nongthombam, the officer in charge of the Imphal police station. He denied that he asked Manglem to delete his Facebook posts. “I never asked him to delete posts,” Nongthombam told me.  “We don’t like to delete it because that contents will be the evidence. So why should we ask him to delete?”

Nongthombam also told me that the police have constituted a committee to monitor social media posts, called the media monitoring committee. “Because these days many media crazy people come out, they posted many provocative words and sentences,” Nongthombam said. He continued that such posts may create tension between the state’s diverse communities, castes and races. “Manipuri state is very small but we have many communities. More than 36 communities are here so we have to monitor it very fully,” he said. Nongthombam added that a sou moto case may be registered if the police find “provocative” posts on Facebook, WhatsApp or social media. “We see the gravity,” he said.

In addition to the cases of the Frontier Manipur editors and Manglem, there are other more well known cases of arrests being made for Facebook posts critical of the government. In 2018, the arrest of Kishorechandra Wangkhem, an Imphal-based journalist, gained wide publicity. On 21 November that year, Wangkhem was arrested on sedition charges for posting a video on Facebook that was critical of prime minister Narendra Modi, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Singh, the chief minister. On 27 November, Wangkhem was booked under the National Security Act. In April 2019, the Manipur High Court ordered his release.

Last year, Erendro Leichombam, a political activist and a vocal critic of the BJP government, was also booked for sedition for a Facebook post. In 2016, along with Irom Sharmilla, a human-rights activist, Leichombam co-founded the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance, a Manipur-based political party. In July 2020,  Leichombam was booked under sections of the Indian penal code relating to sedition and giving provocation with intent to cause riot. On 26 July, members of the Imphal East Police arrived at Leichombam’s home to arrest him, but they were unable to because he was in Delhi. When his brother inquired about the charges against Leichombam, the police told him it was related to a Facebook post. Though the police did not specify which post he was charged for, Leichombam believed it was his post from two days earlier. On 24 July, he posted a photo of a Sanajaoba Leishemba, a then newly-elected Rajya Sabha member with support from the BJP. “I posted a picture of the MP bowing to Amit Shah, the caption was essentially translated to a slave or slavery,” Leichombam told me.

Prior to this, in May 2018, Leichombam was arrested for posting a video on Facebook. The video showed Bihari youth speaking against Manipuris and threatening to attack them. He was booked for “promoting enmity between different groups” and “criminal intimidation.” A local court ordered his release in the first week of June.

Leichombam believed he has been targeted for questioning the government. “I consider it a responsibility to speak up,” he said. “I would prefer that they don’t arrest me nor anybody for just speaking on social media or writing something in newspapers but at the same time I am not afraid to go to jail, I am not afraid of the intimidation. If there are potential challenges of me speaking up, so be it.” 

Leichombam, who graduated from Harvard University with a masters degree in public administration, returned to Manipur in 2013. “I was away for more than ten years so I thought I will come back to Manipur and try to contribute in some manner and form.” In the 2017 assembly election,  he unsuccessfully contested the Thangmeiband seat in Imphal West.

Political and policy activists in Manipur told me that there is a perception that Singh, the chief minister, takes an active interest in what is being said about the government on Facebook. Leichombam said that the government “controls all media houses in Manipur from newspapers to television channels” He added that “Facebook is the only medium” the government “cannot control.” He continued, “Because the Manipuris, especially young Manipurs are becoming more aware, more educated, more empowered and they will speak up. Facebook is not like your traditional media which they completely control in Manipur today.”

In November 2020, reports emerged on social media that Singh had personally contacted the creators of Hingminashi Eikhoi, a news media portal that exists as a Facebook page. Naoba Senjam, one of the persons in-charge of Hingminashi Eikhoi confirmed that the chief minister had spoken to them over the phone. “Since he is a BJP person, he just asked us if the page is for Congress or BJP,” Senjam told me. “We said we are not for the Congress or the BJP because we are like media and we do things for everyone.” According to Senjam, Singh said he did not want to explain much over the phone and would call them for an in-person meeting. “Maybe he wanted to join hands with us and do something for his party or maybe he wanted to upload something, whatever he is doing for the people,” Senjam said. “We have no idea actually. He might ask us to join him and do something good for him.” Senjam said he would be ready to collaborate with the chief minister if asked to. The chief minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile Liechonbam said that Singh is simply doing the bidding of the political command in New Delhi. “Biren is over zealous to prove that he is a disciple of Modi,” Liechonbam said. “So he is just trying to please his master and New Delhi approves it wholeheartedly if you need to silence people or you need to abuse power to keep them in check, then do it with the permission from Delhi.”

Speaking on the state’s current political situation, Leichombam continued, “The reason why the current government is trying to silence all its critics and curtail freedom of speech is there is deep insecurity over their power. The government is weak. All these arrests and curtailment of speech is a sign that it is a deeply insecure government. Somehow it projects an image of popularity but it is rejected by the people at large.”

Referring to people being booked for sedition, he added, “It is a national trend but it is more so in Manipur because BJP leaders in Manipur are new converts. There is a saying that new converts are even more religious than the old ones, new leaders are showing more enthusiasm in curbing free speech just to please the masters who are sitting and strategising in Delhi. So things are worse in Manipur.”