15, Jul 2021 | Adeeti Singh
Erendro Leichombam is a 40-year-old political activist who reportedly holds a postgraduate degree in Public Administration from Harvard Kennedy School, and is a former associate of civil rights activist Irom Chanu Sharmila. Leichombam has been lodged in the Sajjwa jail since May 13, 2021, along with journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem for a Facebook post condoling the death of the state Bhartiya Janata Party President S. Tikendra Singh, who succumbed to Covid-19.
The post highlighted that cow urine and cow dung as cures for the Coronavirus, something often advocated by many members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its other right-wing affiliates, is incorrect. The post also said that it is science and common sense that will save people from the pandemic.
According to media sources, Leichombam was picked up by the Police on May 13 from his Imphal residence after a complaint was filed by state BJP general secretary P. Premachanda Meitei and party vice president Usham Deban. His sister Anupama Leichombam told The Wire, “That night the police team, while dragging him out of the house, also hit my mother on her chest because she asked them to allow him to at least change his night clothes.”
CJP stands in solidarity with the human rights defenders targeted by a vindictive state. A healthy democracy needs voices of dissent. We also need human rights defenders and social activists to work tirelessly to uphold our shared values of equality, peace and justice. Join CJP now!
Previous legal troubles over Facebook posts
This is not the first time that Leichombam has been embroiled in a case on trumped up charges. In July 2020, as per a Scroll.in report, Manipur Police had filed a sedition case against him for a particular picture he had posted on July 24 about Sanajaoba Leishemba, the newly-elected Rajya Sabha MP and the titular king of the state. In the image, Leishemba, who was elected on a BJP ticket, was seen bowing down with his hands folded in front of Union Home Minister Amit Shah. Leichombamhad captioned the picture “Minai macha”, which roughly translates to “son of a servant”.
He was arrested in May 2018 for posting a video on Facebook that the police said amounted to “promoting enmity between different groups and criminal intimidation”. After spending about 2 weeks in prison, he was released on bail in June by a local court.
In the 2021 case related to a Facebook post over Cow dung as a cure for Covid-19, Erendro Leichombam and journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem have been detained under the National Security Act. The District Magistrate, Th. Kirankumar, in his official letters to Wangkhem and Leichombamon May 19, listed out a number of reasons as to why he had ordered their detention under NSA.
According to a report in The Wire, DM Kirankumar referred to the 2018 Facebook post of Leichombam to buttress his argument in support of the invocation of a draconian law and also to add to his list of “crimes”. The DM’s letter read, “One video clip (that was) uploaded depicting protest by you and team against the existing government by way of throwing eggs on posters of the Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi, the then VC (vice chancellor) of Manipur University, Shri A P Pandey, Shri N. Biren Singh, honourable chief minister of Manipur, Shri Syamkesho, Registrar of Manipur University and Shri Yugindro, pro-VC of Manipur University which are displayed on a gate wall.”
Further, citing his latest Facebook post, the DM said, “Your very statement brings or attempts to bring hatred or contempt, or incites or attempts to incite disaffection towards the government established law in India, recites or utters obscene words in social media platform, thereby wilfully insulted and outraged the religious feeling and sentiments of the BJP workers and family members on the occasion of demise of president of BJP Manipur Pradesh namely late Professor S. Tikendra Singh…” The DM has also called him a “habitual offender” committing offences that intend to cause fear or alarm to the public, reported The Wire.
The NSA detention order was issued on May 17, the same day when Leichombam got bail from the local court in Imphal. With most preventive detention and anti-terror laws, it is routine for the executive to invoke such statutes after the alleged accused gets bail. This vindictiveness can be traced in many cases, that of Dr. Kafeel Khan, Dalit rights activist Chandrashekhar Azad among many others. This serial crime registration ensures extended periods of detention and amounts to an abuse of due process of the law.
Leichombam father has moved a habeas corpus petition against his illegal detention before the Supreme Court and the matter is likely to be heard on July 17.
Draconian Preventive Detention Laws
Despite Constitutional protection provided to every person under Articles 20 and 22 of the Constitution, some laws throttle this very protection. Article 22 specifies rights guaranteed to a person if the person is arrested: (Protection Against Arrest and Detention in Certain Cases).
Interestingly this Constitutional protection –which includes the right to defend, have a lawyer, be produced before a Magistrate within 24 hours, also allows Parliament in certain instances to enact laws that legitimise/legalise preventive detention beyond three months without obtaining the opinion of an advisory Board (Clause 7 of Article 22). It is under this constitutional cover that such laws remain in our statute books. There is also the critical Article 20 (Protection in Right of Commission of Offences especially sub clause (3) which states, “No person shall be deprived of his life or liberty except according to procedure established by law.” It is under these constitutional protections that law enforcement agencies, executive (State Power) is, supposed to at any rate be accountable and transparent especially when it comes to curtailing freedom of an individual.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data of 2017, Manipur recorded six detentions under National Security Act (NSA), and by the end of the year, only one person was released from custody by the Advisory Board. The National Security Act mandates the constitution of Advisory Boards where the Authority issuing the detention order must refer all cases to such a Board within three weeks from the date of the detention order.
The government is also responsible for forwarding any representation made by the detainee and the report of the detaining authority to the Board, under the Act. The Advisory Board is required to submit a report to the detaining Authority within seven weeks of the date of detention. The prime consideration before the Advisory Board is the detention of the person and not the period of detention.
Surprisingly, the NCRB data published under ‘Crime in India’, which was also referred to by the Union Government in September last year to answer a question on imposition of NSA, revealed that Manipur had recorded zero cases under the said Act.
But, the same year, journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem was detained under the NSA in November, for posting critical comments on Facebook against the Chief Minister N Biren Singh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He allegedly posted videos on Facebook calling the Chief Minister a “puppet” of the Prime Minister, and also criticising the move of the state government to celebrate the birth anniversary of Rani Jhansi as totally unnecessary. This suggests an absence of accuracy in data presented before Parliament.
His representation against the detention order was rejected by the District Magistrate on December 7 and the State Government confirmed his detention on December 14 and fixed the detention period for 12 months. On April 8, 2019, the Manipur High Court quashed his detention order on coming to the conclusion that the detaining authority did not provide Wangkhem with the copies of the Facebook posts and compact disc containing the videos uploaded by him, which resulted in depriving him of the opportunity to make an effective representation against the detention order. This case, somehow, did not reach NCRB data, opening a can of worms regarding the veracity of such government statistics.
The NCRB data, 2019 states that 489 people have been detained across India under the NSA.
|No. of GD entries made||Persons detained||Persons released by Advisory Board in 1 month||Persons released by Board in 1 to 3 months||Persons released by Board in 3 to 6 months||Persons who remained detained at the end of 2019|
Source: National Crime Records Bureau (Crime in India 2019) Table 19A.11
In order to get more details about NSA cases, CJP looked through the Manipur High Court website. In the year 2019, the high court disposed of 7 cases related to habeas corpus writ petitions. Out of these 7 cases, around 5 cases involved the National Security Act. Similarly, in the year 2020, the court disposed of 9 cases, out of which at least 3 were under NSA.
Liberty is a highly cherished constitutional value, as interpreted by most courts, but people like Erendro Leichombam remain incarcerated under a claustrophobic legislation without bail for a mere online post. Attention should be paid to certain sections like section 16 of the NSA. Under this provision, no legal action or proceedings can be initiated against the Central Government or a State Government for it is to be assumed that they acted in “good faith”.
Leichombam, who was whisked away to an Imphal jail, has managed to garner support against his detention. The Harvard Graduate Students Union have started a petition on June 5, urging the government to release him.