Both were critical of the ruling party for recommending using cow dung and urine as cures for Covid-19
A journalist and an activist in India have been in jail for weeks after being arrested over Facebook posts related to ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state chief S Tikendra Singh’s death of Covid-19.
They refuted the claims made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party that cow dung and urine can cure the disease.
On May 13, police in the Manipur state of stormed into their homes at night to arrest them, after local members of the BJP reported their posts.
Journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem’s home in Imphal, which is just five kilometres away from that of political activist Erendro Leichombam, according to The Print. Shockingly, both of them along with some of their family members were assaulted during the police raids.
Leichombam's Facebook post read: “The cure for Corona is not cow dung & cow urine. The cure is science and common sense.” Wanghem’s post stated that cow dung and urine do not work as cures for Covid-19.
The questionable health advice was given by Pragya Thakur, a controversial MP from BJP who also claimed that the urine can cure lung infections caused by the virus and stated she drinks the urine daily.
Even though doctors find no scientific basis for claims that cattle wastes can be therapeutic or antiseptic, BJP leaders continue to promote it as a cure for Covid-19.
The duo, who have a history of speaking out on social media against members of the ruling party and its policies, were booked on May 17 under the National Security Act (NSA), which provides for detention for up to a year without trial.
India has been at the heart of the deadlier Delta variant, which is ravaging fuelling the country’s Covid-19 pandemic, killing more than 400,000 till date.
What did police say?
One day later, Imphal West district police superintendent K Meghachandra Singh said the two were arrested on May 13 under the Indian Penal Code (IPC)’s Section 153 A for allegedly promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc and acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.
“The NSA was slapped on them on Monday (May 17) and they were produced in a court through video conferencing and remanded in judicial custody for four days. Both are in Imphal jail,” he told the Hindustan Times then.
Imphal West District Magistrate, Th. Kirankumar, ordered their detention under the stringent NSA on the grounds that their posts could “endanger the maintenance of public order”.
Since then, the two have been languishing in Imphal’s Sajiwa jail without trial. An appeal to the district magistrate and state government to revoke the charges were both rejected.
The NSA is slapped to prevent anyone “from acting in a manner prejudicial to the security of the State, maintenance of public order and maintenance of supplies and services essential to the community”. Section 153 A provides for maximum five-year imprisonment.
Their lawyer Chongtham Victor said he is challenging the arrests on grounds of the right to free speech.
“The allegations are completely illogical and totally false,” Victor told VICE World News.
“I can't say how long [Leichombam and Wanghkem] will be in jail,” he concluded.
Mumbai Press Club condemned the journalist's imprisonment and demanded his release.
The state authorities' take
Manipur's Minister of Information and Public Relations Biswajit Singh said the district authority took action against the two men after 'finding merit' in the cases against them.
'The government has taken note of the entire issue; the file is pending with the chief minister,' he told The Print.
Earlier this year, Manipur state's Chief Minister Biren Singh told reporters that freedom of speech and expression, although protected under the Indian Constitution, cannot be misused.
Leichombam's family has filed a plea at the Supreme Court to challenge the order for his indefinite detention.
Details of the duo
Wangkhem, a popular TV journalist, was first arrested in November 2018 for uploading a video on social media criticising Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh’s government. He was booked for sedition and NSA was also slapped on him before he was released in April 2019. The high court quashed the sedition charges against him. He was again arrested in September 2020 on the same charges and for allegedly promoting enmity between different groups on social media. Wangkhem was released in December 2020 and joined Frontier Manipur and started hosting a talk show.
In July last year, Leichombam, who has worked with World Bank and United Nations Development Programme, was booked for sedition for a Facebook post on titular Manipur king Sanajaoba Leishemba greetings to Union home minister Amit Shah after the former’s election to the Rajya Sabha. Leichombam was later released on bail.
The ‘Cow politics’ in India
Cows are sacred in Hinduism, and products made from their feces and urine are often touted as antidotes to diseases, including Covid-19. In the last decade, the BJP has passed laws based on the belief in the holy status of cows.
These laws protect cattle from being eaten or sold, and uphold the belief in the animal’s divine powers. The government even set up a National Cow Commission for the purpose. At least 20 states have banned beef consumption, or regulate the sale of cows.
Since Modi came to power, Hindu nationalist mobs have killed dozens in the name of protecting cows. The victims were usually Muslims or other minorities, and the killers often got away with their crimes.