An Arunachal Pradesh court on Tuesday granted bail to human rights lawyer E Mili and Assam-based artist Nilim Mahanta, who were arrested on Sunday for allegedly defacing the boundary wall of the state civil secretariat building in capital Itanagar, reported The Wire.
Mili and Mahanta had painted “no more dams” message on a mural of the wall as a mark of protest against hydropower projects in the state. Activists are against the construction of big dams, arguing that they will flood fertile lands, destroy flora and fauna and displace residents, reported PTI.
The accused men have been charged under the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984.
At Tuesday’s hearing, the counsel of the two men argued that Section 3 of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act is not applicable in the case as Mahanta had painted the graffiti on the wall because he was hired to do so by an non-governmental organisation. The section deals with punishment for damaging public property.
The public prosecutor also agreed that the section does not seem to be valid in the case.
Judicial magistrate Tenzin Metho said both the accused men seemed prima facie involved in defacing the property. He said that whether section 3 of the Act would be applicable can be considered during the trial.
The judge said that the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression comes with “certain reasonable restrictions”.
“Even if both the accused [men] wanted to convey their protest regarding the issue of construction of dams, there are several other modes of conveying their message but such defacement upon a carefully curated painting at the state’s expense was certainly not the right forum,” the court observed, according to The Wire.
The judge also noted that there was no point in keeping Mahanta and Mili under detention as the police had produced them in the court before their remand expired.
Granting them bail, the judge, however, directed Mahanta and Mili to repaint the defaced wall to its original form within 10 days from the date of the court order.
Several activists had protested against Mahanta and Mili’s arrest and demanded their immediate release. After they were granted bail, the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad said it would drop a road blockade protest planned for Wednesday, reported The Telegraph.
Amid protests against police action, Home Minister Bamang Felix had said the duo were arrested for defacing public property and not for any protest.
“We firmly believe in freedom of expression and the right to dissent or protest by any citizen according to their rightful conscience within the framework of law,” Felix said in a statement.
The statement said that Mahanta and Mili had hurt the sentiments of the residents of the state, who “take much pride” in their glorious past. The mural on the secretariat building was part of a government project called the “Wall of Harmony” to showcase the state’s journey in the last 50 years.
“The aim of the mural is to celebrate the pride of Arunachal and its people in a very contemporary manner,” the minister said. “It narrates the story of the state focusing on its main features and milestones and on its diverse tribes living in harmony, our crafts, rich heritage of flora and fauna, iconography and monuments treated in a chronological manner.”