As Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's stint in hospital stretches into its fourth week, the state police have arrested seven people and registered more than 40 cases over the last two weeks on charges of rumour mongering. This has drawn wide-spread criticism from Opposition politicians and rights activists.

"If at all action needs to be initiated, it has to be against the government for not being transparent," said V Suresh, the general secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties.

The latest arrests came on Friday, when L Ramesh, a bank clerk, and S Suresh, a jewellery appraiser, were detained in Coimbatore in western Tamil Nadu for allegedly making jokes about Jayalalithaa's condition.

Though the chief minister has been in Chennai's Apollo hospital since September 22, the authorities have not specified what exactly she is suffering from, other than to say that she has a "known history of diabetes and winter bronchitis in inclement weather”.

Over the past weeks, the hospital has issued occasional statements about Jayalalithaa's health. On October 6, for instance, doctors said that she continued to require respiratory support, nebulisation, drugs to decongest her lungs, antibiotics, nutrition, general nursing care and supportive therapy.

But there have been no statements over the past week, during which there has been a spike in the number of people arrested for speculating about the chief minister's health.

Arrests are 'despotic'

On Monday, former Supreme Court Judge Markandey Katju, in a Facebook post, described the arrests "despotic and unconstitutional" and said they were against the spirit of democracy and free expression. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) appealed to the government to release the arrested people immediately and stop the police from making detentions using this as an excuse.

Friday's arrests in Coimbatore were made on the basis of a complaint from an All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam local leader Punitha Devi, who allegedly overheard the two men laughing about the chief minister's health.

The All India Bank Employees' Association swung into action quickly after the arrest. CH Venkatachalam, the national general secretary of the union, told that the surveillance camera videos at the bank have been analysed and there was not an "iota of truth" to the complaint.

"We think these arrests are too much," he said, adding that the union would help move the bail application for the two on Tuesday.

Silence feeding rumours

The rise in arrests have coincided with a phase of complete silence on part of the Apollo hospital. The last time a bulletin on the chief minister's health was issued was on October 10, which mentioned that she was still under respiratory support.

The bulletins so far have said the chief minister was being treated by a team of doctors, including those from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, for infection. Hospital officials told that the chief minister had a lung infection and was on respiratory support. A doctor from Britain is also advising the hospital on her treatment.

However, the official silence about Jayalalithaa's health has fanned a blaze of unverified information on social media.

The reallocation of chief minister's portfolios to Finance Minister O Panneerselvam on October 11 has heightened the doubts over Jayalalithaa's health. There is anxiety across that state on how long she will continue in the hospital.

Jayalalithaa's illness came at a time when the state had to fight a battle to get its share of Cauvery water from Karnataka. In her absence, the AIADMK government has been reluctant to take any step towards uniting political parties in Tamil Nadu to pressurise the Centre.

With the north-east monsoon expected to break in the next two weeks, Opposition leaders, including S Ramadoss of the Pattali Makkal Katchi, have raised questions about the administration's preparedness in coping with heavy rain. In Chennai, the memories of the floods last December are still fresh.

Upcoming elections

In the meantime, the Election Commission of India, on Friday, notified elections to Thanjavur and Aravakurichi Assembly constituencies, which were rescinded in May when it became evident that parties were bribing voters with cash.

The polls will take place on November 19 along with by-election to the Tiruparangundram constituency, which fell vacant after its incumbent SM Seenivel died in May.

Since September 22 when Jayalalithaa was admitted to the hospital, the government has not announced a single new project of any importance. Party members have focused on arranging prayers for their leader's health and there was apprehension about whether the AIADMK was ready for the electoral battle on November 19. The main opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam looks at the by-election as an opportunity to corner the ruling party. DMK spokespersons on Monday used television debates to peg the scheduled elections as a litmus test for the government's performance since it took over in May. Jayalalithaa's health is also likely to become an important poll issue.

Meanwhile, the government has not heeded to demands of the Opposition for more information on Jayalalithaa's health. Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam leader Vijayakant, in a statement last Wednesday, said Jayalalithaa must personally clarify her condition if she was fit as claimed by AIADMK leaders.

Human rights activists said without addressing the core issue of a complete lack of transparency on Jayalalithaa's health, the police using the law arbitrarily to create a "chilling effect".

V Suresh of the People's Union for Civil Liberties said the judiciary was equally responsible for the recent arrests. "The magistrates should use their discretion before remanding someone," he said.

In all these cases, the complainants have been members of the ruling AIADMK. This has led to fears that more arrests are likely to follow.