The detention of a journalist in Manipur under the stringent National Security Act for a social media post is a clear instance of misuse of power and a blatant violation of his rights as a citizen. It indicates a dangerous trend among those wielding power to invoke laws aimed at preserving public order and security in a casual or vindictive manner, with utter disregard for constitutional provisions that uphold individual liberty. It is immaterial how scathing the Facebook post of Kishorechand Wangkhem was in its criticism of the Manipur Chief Minister and his party. Calling the Chief Minister a “puppet” can in no way be a reason to arrest him, as was done by the police in Imphal in November, on the charge of sedition. A magistrate granted him bail, noting that Mr. Wangkhem’s remarks were no more than an expression of opinion against the public conduct of a public figure, albeit in “street language”. However, in a sign that the regime of Chief Minister N. Biren Singh could not tolerate the journalist being set free, he was arrested again a couple of days later and detained under the NSA, which provides for detention for a year without bail to prevent someone from “acting in any manner prejudicial to the security of the state” or for “the maintenance of public order”. The NSA can be used only against those advocating armed insurrection or violent disaffection. It is shocking that the statutory advisory board held there was “sufficient cause” for detention, when he posed no threat to public order or security. The State should revoke its vengeful detention order.
The Manipur government confirmed his imprisonment for a year as soon as the detention order was cleared by the advisory board. It is questionable whether a person can be detained under the NSA for one year at a go, as its provisions say the detention can only be for three months at a time and up to one year in total. This position has also been confirmed by the Supreme Court. The NSA advisory board consists of three members who are, or have been, or are qualified to be high court judges. It is not expected to approve detention orders in a routine or mechanical manner. At a time when the Law Commission is revisiting Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with sedition, and there is a demand for its repeal, it is disturbing that State governments continue to use it. It is even more deplorable that on failing to make the sedition charge stick, a government puts away the same person under the NSA. This is a fit case for judicial review, and the protests and the outrage against the incarceration of Mr. Wangkhem ought to result in a stinging indictment of the State government’s action. This will inhibit any future move to throttle free expression by misusing the law.