The arrest of Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani over a Twitter post has once again brought to the fore the Assam Police’s promptness to go the extra mile to cross the thin barrier between policing and highhandedness.
The proactive attitude of the police, flying to another state for arresting a legislator over a tweet, has been seen as yet another instance of over-reaction to please the political bosses by the force which, of late, has earned flak for being trigger-happy and prickly to dissent against the BJP leaders.
An FIR was filed by a BJP executive member of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), Arup Kumar Dey, at the Kokrajhar Police Station on April 19 against Jignesh Mevani for a post on Twitter against the Prime Minister. Dey complained that Mevani said “the Prime Minister of India Mr Narendra Modi worships and considers ‘Godse’ as God” and claimed the tweet “has caused widespread criticism and has the propensity to disturb public tranquillity, prejudicial to maintenance of harmony among a certain section of people…(and) has the tendency to destroy the social fabric of different communities.”
Mevani was arrested the following day, on April 20, at about 11:30 pm by a team of Assam Police from Gujarat’s Banaskantha district. He was flown to Guwahati on Thursday and then taken by road to Kokrajhar district. Charges have been framed against the legislator under IPC sections 120B (criminal conspiracy), 153A (promoting enmity between communities), 295A (deliberate and malicious acts to outrage religious feelings), 504 (insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace), 505(1)(b),(c),(2) (whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report likely to cause any officer not to discharge his duty, cause fear to the public, incite a community to commit offences against another community), and Section 66 of the Information Technology Act.
‘Excessive police action’
Prominent intellectual and academician, Dr Hiren Gohain, expressed his strong disappointment over the arrest of the Dalit leader and has demanded the immediate release of the legislator. Gohain told The Federal, “I am immensely and most disagreeably surprised by the excessive action of the Assam Police in arresting legislator Jignesh Mevani from far-off Gujarat for a bitter critical comment on the Prime Minister on the complaint of someone from Assam.”
“The complainant may have the highest regard for the Prime Minister. But others are within their rights to hold and air a completely contrary view. If that comment includes an exaggeration or an unsubstantiated opinion, even then it may be allowed if it does not seriously disturb peace and tranquillity anywhere in the country. After all, political leaders and journalists air similar views against objects of their ire a hundred times a day. Neither can it be said that the comment hinders the PM in discharging his duties in any way, he said.
“Assam Police appears to be acting like an immature teenager who takes offence at anything that displeases him. This gross over-reach by a law-and-order agency is in my view a serious violation of the core principles of freedom of speech,” he added.
‘Legally not tenable’
Speaking about the legal aspects of the sections under which charges have been framed against MLA Mevani, Advocate Nekibur Zaman of the Guwahati High Court said that a notice for appearance should have been sent to the accused, following which an arrest could have been made had the latter refused to abide and appear as called for.
Zaman questioned the police custody saying that in the presence of clear documentation of the tweet, “there is nothing to hide or to be recovered. Initial enquiry should have been done on the motive of the tweet, but that does not call for police custody. The state police has been an agency of the state government and continues to work as such”.
Kankan Das, part of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee’s legal team representing Mevani, called it a ‘politically motivated case’. “If you tally the tweet with the complaint filed by Arup Kumar Dey, there is no relation.”
Mevani is presently the only independent MLA in the Gujarat Assembly. Although he extended his support to the Congress in September 2021, he is yet to join the party formally.
His arrest has also been condemned by Raijor Dal leader Akhil Gogoi, who called it an act of Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma to appease the Centre, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ahead of Gujarat Assembly elections scheduled to be held later this year.
Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, an independent member of Rajya Sabha tweeted, “The arrest of Dalit leader @jigneshmevani80 by Assam Police looks politically motivated. The fascist Govt is leaving no stone unturned to intimidate the voices of the opposition. RSS & Modi are not immune to criticism and arrest for criticising them is a blatant violation of law.”
The arrest of Dalit leader @jigneshmevani80 by Assam Police looks politically motivated. The fascist Govt is leaving no stone unturned to intimidate the voices of the opposition. RSS & Modi are not immune to criticism and arrest for criticising them is a blatant violation of law.
— Ajit Kumar Bhuyan (@AjitKrBhuyan) April 21, 2022
Surfeit of sedition cases
This is, however, not the first such case of Assam police going overboard to curb dissent. An FIR was registered against a research scholar, Suraj Gogoi and the Editor of The Hindu, Suresh Nambath, in a police station in Guwahati in September 2021 for an article on brutal eviction drive in Assam’s Darang district wherein two persons were killed.
Earlier, in April 2021, a 48-year-old writer was arrested on sedition and other charges for a Facebook post made after 22 security personnel were killed in a Maoist attack in Chhattisgarh. The accused, Sikha Sarma, a Guwahati-based Assamese writer, had allegedly written that the salaried professionals who die in the line of duty cannot be termed martyrs.
In January 2019, Dr Gohain, activist Akhil Gogoi and journalist Manjit Mahanta (now Congress spokesperson) were booked on charges of sedition for their comments during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
‘Court has to decide’
However, retired Additional Chief Secretary to the Government of Assam, MGVK Bhanu, police actions. “We are nobody to decide whether the police action is legal or illegal. It is for the courts to decide. Police of every state under the incumbent government has been called puppet of the government by the opposition. But I, being a former bureaucrat of the state, I know that the Assam Police is highly professional and cannot be a puppet of anybody.”
It needs to noted that as per the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) data, Assam topped amongst the states with the highest number of sedition cases (54) between 2014-19.
Apart from the several sedition cases, the Assam Police has also attracted criticism for its spree of encounters. As per data provided in the last Budget Session of the Assam Assembly on March 28, 29 people had been killed and 96 injured in police shooting in Assam since May 2021. The numbers of such extra-judicial shooting have gone up since then. The Guwahati High Court is presently hearing a PIL against the alleged ‘fake encounters’.