Feature: Manipur has jailed an activist, a journalist for 2 months for saying cow dung can’t cure COVID

(The Wire)

Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

While the inclusion of a Harvard University alumnus, Jyotiraditya Scindia, in the Narendra Modi government on July 7 has led the ruling BJP to claim that the party and its regime give credence to both ‘Harvard and hard work’, an alumnus from that hallowed university has been locked up in jail by its government in Manipur – under the National Security Act (NSA) – for questioning a section of party men who claimed that the cure for COVID-19 is in cow urine and dung.

Erendro Leichombam, a 2012 graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, has been locked up in Manipur’s Sajjwa jail since May 13 along with Imphal-based journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem for their Facebook comments condoling the death of the state BJP president S. Tikendra Singh due to COVID-19 on May 13. In these posts, they also highlighted that while Singh’s party members are advocating cow urine and cow dung as cures for the virus, it is science and common sense that could save people from the pandemic.

As per the family members of Erendro and Kishorechandra, state police teams swooped in on the night of May 13 and picked the duo up from their respective residences in Imphal.

“They just barged in and dragged him out from inside the house; in the process, the t-shirt he was wearing got torn. The eldest of my three kids, who is eight years old, got so scared of the sound of that assault on her father that even nearly two months after that incident, she shakes if she hears even a car horn all of a sudden,” Kishorechandra’s wife Elangbam Ranjita told The Wire from Imphal.

Erendro’s sister Anupama Leichombam said, “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.”

The police action was taken in response to complaints filed by state BJP general secretary P. Premachanda Meetei and party vice president Usham Deban based on the duo’s Facebook comments.

This was not the first time the N. Biren Singh government has come after Erendro or Kishorchandra. In July 2020, the state police had filed a case of sedition (124A) against Erendro for a Facebook comment. Though the state police hadn’t specified then which remark it had found problematic, it was suspected that Erendro’s comment, minai macha (son of a servant), to a photo featuring S. Leishemba, Manipur’s erstwhile king and now a Rajya Sabha member with the support of the BJP, bowing in front of BJP national leader Amit Shah, must have angered the Biren Singh government.

Prior to that, in May 2018, Erendro was arrested for posting a video on Facebook which the police claimed amounted to “promoting enmity between different groups and criminal intimidation”. He was released by a local court in June 2018.

Kishorechandra too has been arrested multiple times by the BJP government and charged not only with sedition but the NSA too for criticising the state chief minister, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP’s ideological fountain, the RSS. The Manipur high court, in 2019, had ordered his release from jail by quashing his detention order.

Then, in December 2020, he was once again released from jail after two months in prison on the charge of sedition and promoting enmity between different groups in a social media post.

This time too, prior to slapping the NSA on both of them, the state police accused them of causing ‘social unrest’ for pointing out that science and common sense could save one from COVID-19, not cow urine and cow dung as circulated by several BJP men.

On May 17, a local court in Imphal released them on bail but advocate Victor Chongtham said before he could ready the relevant papers to seek their release from police custody, the state slapped the NSA on them, leading the Imphal West district magistrate, Th. Kirankumar, to detain them. Since then, the duo has been lodged at Sajjwa jail on the outskirts of Imphal.

The district magistrate, Th. Kirankumar, in his official letters to Kishorchandra and Erendro on May 19, listed out a number of reasons as to why he had ordered their detention under NSA.

For Erendro, Kirankumar began with Manipur police’s arrest of him in May 2018. The DM cited that among his crimes then was: “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”.

Citing Erendro’s latest Facebook upload in which he says, “The cure for Corona is not cow dung and cow urine. The cure is science and common sense. Professor ji RIP”, Kirankumar 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 went on to say in his official letter to Erendro that from those “facts”, “It is clearly seen that you are a habitual offender committing offences that intend to cause fear or alarm to the public or to any other section of public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the state or against public tranquillity and incites any class or community or person to commit any offense against any other class or community promoting enmity, hatred, or ill will between classes on grounds of religion, caste or community and brings an attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or incites or attempts to incite disaffection towards the government established by law in India, recites or utters obscene words in social media.”

The DM also said that in view of Erendro’s “prejudicial activities, which will endanger the maintenance of public order”,  “normal criminal laws are not sufficient” and “an alternative preventive measure is therefore immediately called for.”

Erendro’s lawyer Victor told The Wire, “These arrests are also in violation of the Supreme Court’s order on May 7, 2021 which had clearly stated that police should not make any arrest where the punishment for a crime is up to seven years keeping the Covid-19 pandemic in mind. Both Erendro and Kishorechandra have in their representation to the union ministry of home affairs through the superintendent of Manipur central jail at Sajjwa on June 5th have highlighted that point.”

In response to Erendro’s arrest, the Harvard University Students Union’s Facebook page has been running a petition since June 5 seeking the Indian government’s attention for his release. Highlighting that “India, the world’s largest democracy, has imprisoned a Harvard alumni” based on a Facebook post, the students’ union petition said, “Freedom of expression is cardinal to a healthy democracy. Arbitrary detention of a citizen based on a social media post is a violation of fundamental principles of democratic ideals and governance. We urge the Government of India to release Erendro Leichombam and uphold constitutional responsibility to the people of India.”

By invoking the NSA, the government can keep Kishorechandra and Erendro, co-founder of the political outfit PRJA, in preventive detention for up to a year. PRJA or People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance was formed prior to the 2017 assembly elections in the north-eastern state. Aside from Erendro, noted rights activist from the state Irom Sharmila had contested those polls under the PRJA banner, unsuccessfully. This also makes Erendro a political opponent for the ruling BJP.

On June 28, Erendro’s father L. Raghumani Singh, through advocate Shadan Farasat, filed a habeas corpus petition in the Supreme Court seeking his son’s release. As per LiveLaw, Raghumani’s petition said this was not at all a case of invocation of the NSA as the innocuous post of his son was incapable of impacting even “law and order”, leave alone public order or security of the state which are statutory grounds for detention under NSA.

“The petitioner argues that this is a classic case of malice in law, where the law of preventive detention has been used to shut-off political voices that the ruling party in the state of Manipur does not like, rather than for any valid purpose,” said the LiveLaw report.

The case is tentatively set for hearing on July 12. On being contacted, the advocate, Shadan Farasat, refused to give further details of the case.

Advocate Victor told The Wire from Imphal, “The charges are the same in both the cases. So we are waiting for the Supreme Court to hear Erendro’s petition before moving anything on Kishorechandra case.”

Meanwhile, Erendro and Kishorechandra’s families have not been allowed to meet them due to the COVID-19 restrictions. “Every 15 days, he is allowed to give us a call for five-ten minutes from jail. I wait for that as my three kids want to hear their father’s voice,” said Kishorechandra’s wife.

On July 8, Erendro’s sister visited Sajjwa jail to make a special request to meet him. “I was not allowed to meet but I could talk to him from inside the jail. We wanted to make sure that he is fine in the COVID-19 situation which is still serious in Manipur,” she said.

Courtesy The Wire