Unlike many Western democracies, India continues to hold on to archaic preventive detention laws that curtail individual liberty without a substantial due process. Such laws have strengthened the state’s hand to the detriment of the individual, as shown in the hundreds of arrests made every year, almost casually.
On Tuesday, a journalist in Manipur was jailed for 12 months under preventive detention clauses of the National Security Act, 1980. Kishorechandra Wangkhem was arrested on November 21 for sedition and attempts to create enmity between groups after he posted a video on social media criticising the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government. He reportedly used harsh language against BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister N Biren Singh.
Wangkhem was produced before a magistrate on November 25 who released him on bail, stating his statements did not seem to be an attempt to disturb peace. The order said:
“It does not appear to me as an act which is intended to create enmity between different groups of people community, sections etc, nor does it appear to be one which attempts to bring hatred, contempt, dissatisfaction against the government of India or of the state. It is mere expression of opinion against the prime minister and chief minister of Manipur which cannot be equated with an attack to invite people to violence against the government of India or Manipur to topple it.”
Any government that respects individual liberty would have accepted the ruling and ended its attempts to incarcerate the journalist or appealed the bail order in the High Court. But the Manipur government acted in a manner that is akin to using a ballistic missile to beat a housefly.
A day after he was given bail, Wangkhem was arrested again, this time under the National Security Act. The district magistrate of Imphal West declared that he was satisfied with the police’s claim Wangkhem would resume activities prejudicial to the state’s interests if he was left free. On December 13, an advisory board set up under the Act approved a prison term of 12 months, the maximum allowed by the law, for the journalist – all for a benign video posted on social media.
It’s clear from the alacrity shown by the Manipur police that the only motive was to imprison the journalist to teach him a lesson. Having failed to keep him in jail under the Indian Penal Code, the state took the drastic step of invoking the National Security Act. In the process, the state ran roughshod over important principles set out by the Supreme Court for dealing with similar cases. In 2012, Justice Altamas Kabir advised the state to show “due caution” when invoking preventive detention laws. He wrote:
“As has been observed in various cases of similar nature by this Court, the personal liberty of an individual is the most precious and prized right guaranteed under the Constitution in Part III thereof. The State has been granted the power to curb such rights under criminal laws as also under the laws of preventive detention, which, therefore, are required to be exercised with due caution as well as upon a proper appreciation of the facts as to whether such acts are in any way prejudicial to the interest and the security of the State and its citizens, or seek to disturb public law and order, warranting the issuance of such an order. An individual incident of an offence under the Indian Penal Code, however heinous, is insufficient to make out a case for issuance of an order of preventive detention.”
When a magistrate did not find the journalist’s action worthy of jail time even under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, it is shocking that the advisory board curbed his liberty without regard for the law.
The higher courts should not only quash such sentences but also pull up officers who follow the dictates of their political bosses without regard to their duty under the law.