In the interest of democracy
On Monday, the Supreme Court ordered the release of Manipuri activist Erendro Leichombam who has been charged under the National Security Act (NSA). Though Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had sought to push forth proceedings by a day so that he might take instructions from the Centre, the SC insisted on granting interim relief to the jailed activist, saying that he cannot be kept in jail even for a day and that the Court is of the view "that continued detention of the petitioner would be a violation of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21." As such, the Court directed Leichombam to submit a personal bond of Rs 1,000 and the activist walked out of Manipur Central Jail only hours after the SC decision. It may be recalled that Leichombam was arrested alongside journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem on May 13 in regards to their Facebook posts on the death of Manipur BJP chief S Tikendra Singh. Following his death, Leichombam put out a Facebook post stating "The cure for Corona is not cow dung & cow urine. The cure is science & common sense. Professor ji RIP." Wangkhem on the other hand made this post- "Cow dung, cow urine didn't work. Groundless argument. Tomorrow, I will eat fish." Both posts were thought to be in response to stories of cow dung and piss being extolled as a cure and preventative measures for COVID-19 in parts of the country. The complaint filed against Leichombam and Wangkhem noted that the Facebook posts "had deliberately and wilfully insulted and outraged religious feelings and sentiments" of BJP workers and family members of the deceased. Later, the activist was booked under the National Security Act, preventing him from being granted bail. The order to book him under the NSA stated that his actions were prejudicial to the security of the state and the maintenance of public order. The plea that finally led to the SC granting the activist bail was filed by his father in June where he noted that his son was detained to stifle "completely innocuous speech" made in the public interest. The petition made note of a previous SC order that was passed to warn state governments against stifling the voices of citizens amid the health crisis, stating "It is a settled position of law that statements of criticism of politicians or government office bearers, no matter how harsh, do not by themselves amount to a disruption of public order, unless there is clear evidence to show that such statements could lead to incidents (such as rioting) which would disturb public order." By granting Leichombam bail at this point, the SC is making a fairly clear statement on whether it thinks the NSA should apply in this case even if it is not commenting on the nature of comments that seem to have landed the activist in trouble in the first place. To further emphasise the lack of validity in applying NSA in such a case, the SC on Tuesday asked the Manipur government to file a response to granting compensation to the political activist for his detention. The bench noted that it was a 'serious issue' as someone had lost their liberty since May and that the petitioners had prayed for a grant of compensation for the detention. The SC stated that it was issuing a notice to the Manipur government and that the matter would be taken up for further hearing in another two weeks. This case, like many others that are being taken up by courts across the country, is a growing sign that the judiciary is now invested in quashing what it perceives as misuse of the NSA and the arbitrary nature of how charges are sometimes interpreted to show a threat to national security. It is safe to assume that more such cases of the SC interceding to grant relief in cases of wrongful detention can be expected in the near future. In the meantime, Erendro Leichombam does not seem likely to change track on his activism after his harrowing experience. The activist is already speaking out against the misuse of 'draconian acts' such as the NSA to stifle free speech.