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The Case Of Abhijit Iyer-Mitra: Imagine Being Jailed For A Tweet You Made While On Holiday

Imagine you go on a holiday and your silly tweet about that holiday lands you up in jail!

You must be thinking that’s impossible in a democratic country, well one state in India has just shown nothing is impossible in this world. A defence and international security analyst, the Delhi based journalist Abhijit Iyer Mitra is facing serious repercussions for his silly tweet about the sexual nature of sculptures in Konark Temple of Odisha.  

Mitra visited Odisha last month for a short trip with another journalist friend. They were flown around by former Member of Parliament from Odisha, Jay Panda on his helicopter. Just a day or two after, to the surprise of all, a complaint was lodged for an alleged landing attempt over Chilika Lake, which was a “no-fly eco-sensitive zone” and the hanger where the helicopters are parked has been sealed by the state police, capturing all three choppers inside.

Realising that not enough political mileage arrived from this, Odisha police reached Delhi on September 20th to arrest Abhijit for his “malicious video” hurting Odia pride. Though he was granted bail by the chief metropolitan magistrate of Delhi’s Saket court, the bail was subsequently cancelled by the Supreme Court. CJI Ranjan Gogoi, who headed the bench listening to Mitra’s bail plea, stated that his comments incite religious feelings and he is not entitled to bail.

Mitra’s counsel, pointed that his client’s life will be in danger if he goes back to Odisha to face the probe, to which the CJI replied: “If your life is in danger, then what better place to stay than the jail, you will be secure.”  The irony here being that the people of Odisha, who clearly understand humour have not taken to roads for communal clashes or resorted to violence, but the state police which is running on the orders of the supremo has taken Abhijit into custody for 14 days under Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections, 295A and 153A, which criminalises any speech or expression that has the tendency to hurt religious sentiments or destroy communal harmony.

To add to the absurdity of the situation he has been possibly arrested on the charges of a tweet about the GI status or origin of the much-debated Rosogolla a year ago!

A comedian from Odisha, named Pappu Pompom had said something similar about Odisha’s revered Jagannath Temple, and in another instance, singer Sona Mohapatra had mispronounced a word in Odia Bhajan, but both of them were forgiven by the people of Odisha. Even former SC Judge Markandey Katju was in a soup for anti-Odia remarks. But, he was let off after tendering an apology.

Mitra apologised for his comments first in Delhi, then to the House Committee of Odisha on October 23 and also offered an unconditional apology to the people of Odisha. The people have forgiven him and there is massive support condemning the atrocious treatment of Mitra. On social media, a petition has been doing rounds in support of Abhijit, who has been denied his basic Right to Express under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.

People around the country feel that he has become a pawn in the fight of State government against Jay Panda. Ruben Banerjee, a senior journalist recently wrote “As I have argued in my book, behind Naveen’s soft exterior lies a shrewd, clinical politician who is not necessarily nice. So the outrage over Iyer-Mitra’s detention should be directed against Naveen.” The State of Odisha is under an emergency like situation, the undeterred interference of the Bureaucracy, Police powers with the government, and now the archaic and demonic laws from the colonial era have become a political vendetta to accomplish one’s political agenda.

The attack on political opponents will serve no good to Naveen Patnaik. Rather, it has contributed to the deterioration of his image nationally, and many prominent journalists have tweeted their discontent.

Well-known columnist Kanchan Gupta said Iyer-Mitra was facing “state-sponsored prosecution”, be it for commenting of the Sun Temple and on “whether rosogolla…owes its origin to Odisha or West Bengal a year ago, on Twitter”.

Bhubaneswar-based analyst Rabi Das said; “Had Iyer-Mitra not flown with Panda in his chopper, then it’s possible that no one would have noticed. Though his comments are idiotic, it’s possible that he may have been caught in the political crossfire.”

So, why this unrelenting and unrepentant display of State power by Naveen? Sources say that it’s an exercise to break Abhijit to accept the lie that ruling party goons have pedalled about Jay Panda; that he got Mitra to Odisha to defame and criticise Odia culture and pride, and to pressurise him to give a statement against Jay Panda, who has also been named in the FIR against Mitra.

With 2019 Lok Sabha elections being just a few months away, this insider news can have full weight. Jay Panda’s massive popularity is a sure threat to Naveen Patnaik in the upcoming elections.

But the question that arises out of this situation is – how far can one go in a democratic nation to assert their authority? What Abhijit said did not go down with the people of the state and he has begged for an apology but the state police’s actions are determined by the top bosses and pose the serious issue – that is this prolonged investigation fair in the case of Mitra? This political prowess by Naveen Patnaik against his opponent correct?

Well, the answers are simple, if we don’t want to end up behind bars the next time we express our opinions on social media, and if we really care about the revoking of archaic laws; we need to speak up against this vindictiveness.

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