Three women activists are facing serious charges of seditious conspiracy after they undertook a fact-finding mission in Manipur, which has been witnessing ethnic riots since May 3.
The Manipur Police has invoked strong penal sections that criminalise free speech, political dissent, and assembly, against Annie Raja, CPI leader and general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW); Nisha Siddhu, national secretary of NFIW; and Deeksha Dwivedi, an independent Delhi-based lawyer.
More than a hundred people have been killed and property worth crores of rupees has been destroyed in clashes between the Kuki and the Meitei communities. Internet and travel restrictions are in place in the State, which remains cut off from the rest of the country.
The team visited Manipur between June 28 and July 1 and interacted with riot-affected people. After the visit, the team members spoke to mediapersons in Imphal in which they described the ongoing crisis as “state-sponsored violence” and demanded a Supreme Court-monitored probe into it.
Their visit and statement prompted L. Liben Singh of Imphal to file a complaint against them with the police.
In his complaint, he urged the police to register certain stringent sections of the IPC, including sedition charges, against the activists who he alleged were hatching a “political and criminal conspiracy to instigate the people to wage war against the state”.
The Station House Officer of Imphal police station in West Imphal District registered an FIR on July 8, invoking the sections mentioned by Liben Singh. The sections are: 121(A) (conspiracy against the State and Central government, which is punishable with imprisonment for life), 124(A) (sedition by words, spoken or written, signs, visible representation of hatred or contempt against the government), 153, 153 (A), 153 (B) (intention to cause riot, enmity between different groups and imputations prejudicial to national integration), 499 (defamation) and 504 and 505(2) (breach of peace, false statement, rumour with intention to create enmity). The police added Section 34 (acts by several persons with common intention) to the FIR.
Deeksha Dwivedi approached the Supreme Court immediately and got an interim stay on the FIR. The court has issued notices to the Manipur government asking it to submit a copy of the FIR. On July 18, the Supreme Court extended the stay on FIR against her for four weeks. Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, while extending the protection, also said that during this period, the petitioner can approach the Manipur High Court. He added that the petitioner “may be allowed to appear by video conference” and that if there are any issues she is free to approach the apex Court.
Annie Raja told Frontline that they would face “this vindictive action legally and politically”. She said the FIR was malicious and against bringing out the truth. She said: “It is an act of intimidation and denial of democratic rights. We will fight it out in the court of law. The state is using criminal laws to intimidate citizens who are peacefully resisting the shrinking civic space.”
The PUCL condemned the Manipur Police’s action, stating: “It was just to terrorise voices of dissent and frighten and intimidate citizens who seek to find out the truth and place it in public domain for discussion.”
Also Read | What is really behind the violence in Manipur?
Liben Singh’s accusations
In his complaint, Liben Singh said that the whole of Manipur “is reeling under a state of fear and uncertainty because of the inhuman attacks by the Kuki-Zo militants against innocent Meitei civilians”.
He linked the present violence in Manipur to the State’s two-pronged war against poppy cultivators and illegal immigrants. He claimed that Chief Minister N. Biren Singh’s firm measures had caused huge financial losses to the narco-terrorists. The State had also started tracking and identifying those who clandestinely entered Manipur from Myanmar.
He also claimed that drug mafias and illegal immigrants had “pre-planned” the May 3 violence, especially in Churachandpur district, which has now spread to all parts of the State.
Liben Singh also said that the State government had destroyed some 18,664.5 acres of poppy plantations between 2017 and March-April 2023, of which nearly 2,700 acres were destroyed in Churachandpur district alone.
Liben Singh also said that the team had resorted to “a political and criminal conspiracy” to instigate the people to wage war and overthrow a democratically elected government and to sow communal hatred between the prominent communities.
On May 3, students from the Kuki-Zo and other minor tribes took part in a rally against the Meitei community, which had been demanding special Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for reservation in education and employment. The Kuki-Zoes and other minor tribes fear that they will not get a fair representation if the Meities are given ST status.
Speaking to Frontline over the phone, a Meitei resident of Imphal said: “The situation is slowly returning to normal. Imphal and the valley have been peaceful for the past few days, reporting no incident of violence.”
He said that the ethnic crisis was the result of the State’s stringent measures against poppy growers, middlemen, and drug cartels, besides illegal immigrants. However, some activists in the hilly regions denied these claims. Richard Hmar, a Kuki-Zo living in Churachandpur, told Frontline: “It is a vicious narrative being peddled repeatedly by the State to camouflage its failure to control the riots and find a lasting solution to the vexatious issue. Inequality has frayed social and livelihood issues of the minorities. The Meiteis’ demand for ST status will deprive us of even the meagre available opportunities in education and employment. We will be further marginalised.”
Hmar, a farmer who grows grapes, ginger, and bamboo on two acres, said the riots were engineered with the sole aim of alienating Kuki-Zo and Naga tribes from their lands. He added: “We own 90 per cent of the land in the hills. After having appropriated all opportunities in employment and education, a powerful few are now eyeing our lands.”
Strongly denying that minorities in the hills are backed by outsiders, Hmar said it was the accusation of a “Meitei Chief Minister” who wanted to keep his political image intact among his people. He added: “A sinister attempt is now made to paint us as encroachers. The riots have totally shattered us. We are living in morbid fear in our own motherland.”