Freedom of expression

Is Assam muzzling social media dissent through arrests in the guise of keeping peace?

Police accuse Parimal Gore of promoting enmity between communities. Colleagues say he was targeted for criticising BJP government.

Parimal Gore, an office bearer of the Revolutionary Youth Association, the youth wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, was arrested from his home in Assam’s Biswanath district by the state police on May 8. Gore had circulated a message on social media with an “intention to promote enmity between communities”, the police alleged.

On May 7, Gore, who is also a member of the Communist Part of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, had shared a post on his Facebook wall. It was originally written by one Bipul Sharma. It was a strongly worded indictment of Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and the All Assam Students’ Union’s advisor, Samujjal Bhattacharya.

According to Biswanath superintendent of police Diganta Kumar Chaudhury, Gore had also shared the “offensive message” on a WhatsApp group for journalists. A complaint was filed by the Biswanath district unit of the All Assam Students’ Union, Chaudhury revealed. It was based on the WhatsApp message and not the Facebook post, he added.

A first information report was lodged against Gore under sections 120 (B), 153 (A), and 505 (2) of the Indian Penal Code. While section 120 (B) deals with criminal conspiracy, 153 (A) prosecutes those “promoting enmity between different groups” and 505 (2), “statements conducing to public mischief”.

Identity politics?

Chaudhury said the police suspected that the matter was “linked to the recent Dhemaji incident”. The episode he referred to took place on March 6. An office of the All Assam Students’ Union in Dhemaji district was attacked after a meeting held by a little-known Bengali Hindu outfit called Nikhil Bharat Bengali Udbastu Samanvay Samiti.

The meeting was meant to be a show of support for the Centre’s proposed amendment to the Citizenship Bill, granting Indian citizenship to Hindus who migrated from Bangladesh and have lived in this country for six years, even without documents. The Dhemaji incident had led to widespread tension across Assam.

The violence had played into old fissures between the Assamese and Bengali communities in the state. It had also revived fears about so-called illegal migrants swamping the region and blotting out indigenous cultures. These fears have been a running theme in Assam’s politics for decades now.

The allegedly inflammatory post that landed Gore in trouble happened to refer to the Dhemaji violence. It blamed Sonowal for the incident, saying that it was the Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister who had permitted the meeting in the first place. Sonowal, the post alleged, was responsible for Assamese people being insulted by “illegal Hindu Bengalis”.

The post also accused the chief minister of indulging in opportunistic politics. Sonowal won the state elections last year promising to protect the rights of indigenous people, but was now busy taking orders from Delhi and acting as an agent of “Hindu Bangladeshis”, the post added. It alleged that Samujjal Bhattacharya – the post described him as a “wily fox” – diverted donations collected by the All Assam Students’ Union to further his own business interests. The union’s leaders have been fooling Assamese people, the post concluded.

Incidentally, Sonowal is also a former president of the student body, which led the anti-foreigners agitation in the 1980s. The Assam government – a coalition of the BJP and other regional parties – is peopled with many important leaders who started their political careers with the union.

Critical voices

“Gore belongs to the tea tribe community,” said Chaudhury. The term “tea tribes” refers to a large population of workers shipped to Assam by the British in the 19th century to pick tea on the plantations. While most of them reside within Assam’s many tea gardens, they are often perceived to be outsiders by neighbouring communities.

“His statement could lead to ill-feelings between communities, so we arrested him at night itself,” the police officer said. Gore has been sent to 15 days of judicial custody, he added.

According to Ananta Hazarika, a Revolutionary Youth Association member, the superintendent of police personally came to arrest Gore. “The police arrived with seven jeeps, and arrested him at one in the night,” he said.

Hazarika said the alacrity of the police seemed to suggest the arrest was meant to send a message. “Gore has been highly critical of the local BJP MLA Ranjit Dutta in his writings,” he said. On April 22, Gore had written a social media post accusing Dutta of corruption. The MLA had opened a petrol pump in the area, it claimed. “It seems the arrest is just to muzzle him because the person who actually wrote the post, there is not even a complaint against him,” Hazarika pointed out.

Gore’s Facebook posts reveal that he has been consistently critical of the current state government and its ministers, often accusing them of corruption and communalism. His posts also suggest that he is critical of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological parent.

Earlier, criticism of a saffron outfit on social media had invited trouble for Assam-based human right activist Bondita Acharya. In April, Acharya was reportedly threatened with rape and acid attacks on Facebook by Bajrang Dal activists for condemning the arrest of three people for possessing beef.

No arrests have yet taken place in the case, the investigating officer, Pradip Kalita, told Kalita said he had sent three letters to the Assam Police headquarters seeking technical help to track down the culprits, but had not received any response. “I am not an expert, so I have sought help, but it is yet to come in spite of three reminders,” he said.

On Sunday, several Left-leaning organisations held a protest meeting in Guwahati demanding Gore’s release. Speaking on the occasion, Raju Barua, president of the All Assam Progressive Women’s Union, accused the government of attempting to muzzle inconvenient voices: “There is no space for constructive criticism under this new government, but Right-wing goons who abuse women on social media continue to flourish.”

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