Filing police cases to suppress freedom of expression seems to be a strategy adopted by many north-eastern (N-E) states that have witnessed a spurt in the number of sedition cases in the recent past.
The latest to be booked by the police for writing what the government deemed “objectionable” is an Assam-based journalist Anirban Roy Choudhury, who runs and owns a news portal, Barak Bulletin, in the state’s Cachar district.
Choudhury has been charged under 124A (sedition), 153-A (promoting enmity between different groups) and other stringent sections of the Indian Penal Code for an editorial titled Welcome to the Paradise of the Spineless – We are Assamese, he had written on alleged imposition of Assamese language in the state’s Barak Valley on November 28.
The editorial questioned the silence of Bengalis of Barak Valley over the arrest of suspended BJP leader and veteran advocate Pradip Dutta Roy on sedition charges for objecting to what he felt undermining of the Assam Official Language (Amendment) Act 1961.
The Act stipulates use of Bengali language for administrative and other official purposes in Bengali-majority Barak Valley of Assam, which comprises three districts of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi.
Citing the Act, Dutta Roy objected to the use of only Assamese language in a government hoarding on the COVID-19 vaccination drive put up in Cachar district’s Silchar town last month. Following his objection, the advertisement was replaced with the one that contained the message both in Assamese and Bengali, the latter being the official language of the valley.
After the removal of the Assamese-only hoarding sparked resentment in the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra Valley, an ailing Dutta Roy was arrested on sedition charges.
Roy Choudhury, in his editorial, criticised the police action and also flayed socio-cultural organisations and the civil society of Barak for not standing up to the alleged imposition of Assamese language in the valley.
Taking exception to the editorial, a Silchar-based businessman and a member of All Assam Bengali Hindu Association, Santanu Sutradhar, lodged a police complaint claiming that the write-up would impair the “brotherhood” between the Bengali and Assamese communities of Assam. Based on the complaint Roy Choudhury was booked.
“I merely chronicled the events that led to the arrest of Pradip Dutta Roy, and stressed on the need to uphold the Assam Official Language (Amendment) Act 1961 in Barak Valley. Is that tantamount to sedition? If so, then what about those people who had called for the separation of Barak valley from Assam and even went to the extent of calling the valley cancer,” said Roy Choudhury, who was released on a personal recognisance (PR) bond on Monday (December 8).
Roy Choudhury was referring to proposals made by prominent Assamese litterateur Nagen Saikia and others for the separation of Barak Valley from Assam.
Language divide between Barak and Brahmaputra valleys has been a historic fault-line, which has resurfaced again, particularly after the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019.
“Instead of trying to address the real issues, the government is shooting the messenger to hide its failure,” said a Guwahati-based journalist on condition of anonymity. He cited how major local media in Assam almost blackout a story on alleged land-acquisition scam involving Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s family either due to fear of police action or losing government advertisement revenue.
According to a joint investigation by a Guwahati-based and a Delhi-based news portals, a company co-founded by Himanta Biswa Sarma’s wife Riniki Biswa Sarma allegedly acquired around 18 acres of ‘ceiling surplus’ land in the state in violation of norms.
When the opposition parties raised the issue on Wednesday (December 8), almost all major media houses chose to ignore their statements for “obvious reasons”.
“The issue has not been highlighted by the mainstream media in Assam. Our state president Bhupen Kumar Borah’s statement on the alleged land scam was not covered by major media houses obviously because they have been managed,” said senior Assam Congress spokesperson Manjit Mahanta, who himself is a former journalist.
The Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) too made a similar charge. “We had convened a press conference to highlight the land scam. But not a single word has been carried by any of the major print and electronic media houses in the state because they are too scared to antagonise the government,” said AJP spokesperson Ziaur Rahman.
Rahman said that when he asked an editor why the party’s press conference was not covered, the latter ostensibly told him that “his hands were tied”. “These days, media in the region is doing a lot of self-censorship because everyone is too afraid of being framed in this case or that case, the most popular being the sedition case,” said Patricia Mukhim, a Padma Shri award winning social activist, writer and journalist from the North East.
The media has a reason to be scared as there has been a growing number of cases filed against journalists in the region for reporting events or facts that the government wanted to hide.
Two women journalists reporting on the October 26 communal violence in Tripura were booked for alleged criminal conspiracy and spread of communal hatred by the police in November.
An FIR was registered against a research scholar Suraj Gogoi and editor of The Hindu, Suresh Nambath, in a police station in Guwahati in September for an article on brutal eviction drive in Assam’s Darang district wherein two persons were killed.
A 48-year-old writer was arrested in April this year on sedition and other charges for an alleged 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 on her Facebook page that the salaried professionals who die in the line of duty cannot be termed martyrs.
In January 2019, Sahitya Akademi awardee litterateur Dr Hiren 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.
In neighbouring Manipur, another BJP-ruled state, two senior journalists Paojel Chaoba and Dhiren Sadokpam were “detained” on sedition charges over the publication of an article on the state’s militancy movement in their online news portal, the Frontier Manipur, earlier this year.
In July last year, a sedition case was filed in Manipur against social activist Erendro Leichombam over a Facebook post. Another Imphal-based journalist, Kishorechandra Wangkhem, known for his strong voice against the state’s ruling dispensation, has been arrested thrice under several stringent laws, including the National Security Act and sedition, since 2018.
To put an end to this arm-twisting strategy, Mukhim and another journalist Anuradha Bhasin recently moved the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of the sedition laws. They argued that legal device is often used to curb free speech, freedom of the press, criticism, dissent and to punish critical voices in a democracy.
Manipur and Assam recorded the highest number of sedition cases in the country in 2020, according to the latest data of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Manipur lodged 15 such cases while Assam registered 12 sedition cases. The two states are followed by Karnataka 8, and Uttar Pradesh 7.