Manipur journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem in jail under NSA, wife wages a lone battle

Tora Agarwala
"I was emotional when I posted the status about the date, too," she says later, sitting in the modest house they share with her sister-in-law. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

On February 5, Elangbam Ranjita stated on Facebook that she was on a date. The venue, however, was far from romantic - nothing like the parks and war cemeteries her husband and she frequented as young school-goers in Imphal, when they met almost 20 years ago.

There was little privacy at the Sajiwa Central Jail in Imphal, where her husband Kishorechandra Wangkhem has been incarcerated since November 27, 2018, and it was often hours before she was allowed to meet him, only to shout across the grille, in the din of cacophonous conversations.

A Manipur journalist, Wangkhem was arrested under the National Security Act (NSA) in December last year for allegedly making derogatory comments against the Chief Minister Biren Singh and uploading controversial videos criticising the BJP-led Manipur government for observing Rani of Jhansi's birth anniversary.

On Tuesday morning, after updating her status while waiting outside the jail, Elangbam scrolled through her Facebook profile filled with updates about her husband's arrest: press clippings, messages of support, photos of protest gatherings, and occasionally, the emotional throwback to happier times: a picture of her, Wangkhem and their two girls (aged five and one) celebrating a birthday.

Her elder daughter runs around, keeping her aunt Sandhyarani (Wangkhem's elder sister) on her toes. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

"I was emotional when I posted the status about the date, too," she says later, sitting in the modest house they share with her sister-in-law. Her elder daughter runs around, keeping her aunt Sandhyarani (Wangkhem's elder sister) on her toes. Since the arrest, with Elangbam juggling her job, lawyer visits and court hearings, Sandhyarani has taken over all the household duties, including round-the-clock care of her two young nieces.

Things are slowly looking up now. On February 22, after several delays, the court will hear Wangkhem's appeal, and there is hope of some relief.

But ever since his arrest, Elangbam, who works as an occupational therapist, has been rallying support for her husband: meeting with lawyers, appearing at court hearings, familiarising herself with the law, speaking at protests while shielding her two young daughters from the answer to a question they frequently ask, "Where is my papa? Why has he gone away for so long?"

Last month, the elder daughter, came running home from school and asked her mother, "Is papa in jail? Is jail a good place?" The question was courtesy a comment made by a fellow student in the school van on the way home. Her mother brushed it aside and told the five-year-old that her father was on a training mission and that he would return soon, bearing several toys.

"Thankfully school closed for winter vacations the next day. After that incident, I sent her to stay with her grandmother," says Elangbam, 38. "She is just five. How will she understand?"

Last month, the elder daughter, came running home from school and asked her mother, "Is papa in jail? Is jail a good place?" (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

Elangbam married Wangkhem in 2012, a high school romance that can be traced back to the classrooms of the Manipur Baptist Convention Higher Secondary school in Imphal. They spent years apart, when Wangkhem studied Science at the Assam School of Economics in Guwahati, while she headed to Orissa for her training in the early 2000s.

While both are from families who followed Sanamahism, the indigenous religion of the Meiteis, Elangbam says they were never similar people. "He was always the calm one, while I would stress out easily. He loved to read books and discuss politics," she says. Before he became a journalist in 2017, Wangkhem was training to be a teacher.

In jail, he now asks his wife to bring him books. On the last visit, she took a copy of a Jeffrey Archer novel he had bought at the book fair a week before the incident, only to be told by the jailor - "Woh andar exam de raha hai kya?" She was then asked to photocopy the book before taking it in.

"My husband had one rule though: he would never talk about work at home. We barely ever discussed politics or the government," says Elangbam, who herself has never been a political person. "I always kept away from it. The topics simply never interested me," she says.

On January 30, though, Elangbam found herself speaking at a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill organised by the All Manipur Students' Union in Jantar Mantar in Delhi. Two days before that she spoke at another meet organised in support of her husband.

On Facebook, she now shares information related to politics - her feed features a status update about how draconian the NSA is, a news article about three men in Uttar Pradesh booked for cow slaughter, among others. Her profile picture is of her speaking at the Citizenship Bill protest. Below the picture is a line: I hate #CAB. The Northeast is not a dumping ground.

"Things have changed. I have changed. Before, I rarely used social media. The only Facebook I did was for timepass, now I scan it regularly for news and updates - one can't not be affected after going through so much," says Elangbam.

Kishorechandra Wangkhem with his wife and children. Source: Facebook.

At midnight on November 19, last year, a few hours after the controversial video was uploaded, police landed up at their house. "They searched our home as though they were searching for a terrorist - they looked under beds, opened drawers, barged into the room my elder daughter was sleeping in," says Elangbam, "They asked questions like 'Which organisation are you working for? Who is influencing you?' And all for a few Facebook posts."

The posts, which are still available on Wangkhem's account, was uploaded on the morning on November 19. Wangkhem, after a trip with his colleagues to Loktak Lake to cover the Sangai Festival, had come straight to the ISTV headquarters, a local news channel, where he was an anchor and a desk-editor.

He came across a report about a function to commemorate the birth anniversary of Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi in the BJP office at Canchipur in Manipur. According to Elangbam, Wangkhem then "verbally" quit his job and recorded the video on the top floor of the ISTV office building. In it, he called out the government for distorting the region's history, saying that the Rani of Jhansi "had nothing to do with the freedom struggle history of Manipur".

Wangkhem also referred to the Chief Minister N Biren Singh as a "puppet" of Narendra Modi and a "puppet" of Hindutva, using several expletives for both. "Come and arrest me," he said into his mobile camera, which was streaming the videos live on Facebook. Four videos were uploaded in all. His wife, who was at work at the Thoubal hospital and idly scrolling through Facebook, suddenly came across the posts. "I was taken aback - I had never seen him so angry in my life," she says.

Earlier in August, Wangkhem had been arrested for another Facebook post where he had referred to the BJP as "Buddhu Joker Party." He was then let off on medical grounds. "We didn't even have a lawyer then," says Elangbam.

This time they knew trouble was coming. In an official statement to the police, Wangkhem later said: "I knew I was sure to be arrested because of my live video clip so I went to Mayai Koibi, Kwakeithel, my original home for the night."

The next morning he contacted Elangbam's brother's friend, a lawyer named Chongtham Victor, from whose house he was was arrested at 9.30 pm later that night. Wangkhem was initially detained for four days before being let off on November 25 by the Imphal (West) district court which dismissed the charges of sedition. "He came back home - we thought it was all over," says Elangbam.

But the journalist was summoned again the next day, and booked under the NSA on November 27, and sentenced to 12 months in jail on December 1. "I agree the words he used were not good, but how are they a threat to national security? How is it seditious? He did it because he was frustrated of this government repeatedly distorting our history - they celebrate Rani Jhansi like a hero in Manipur when she has nothing to do with our indigenous history," says Elangbam.

While support continues to pour in (journalist unions, civil society bodies, with Congress president Rahul Gandhi personally writing a letter to Wangkhem a week back), the local media - apart from a couple of publications - has made no mention of the incident.

The All Manipur Working Journalists' Union has distanced itself from speaking about Wangkhem's detention because of a resolution it passed in August saying it wouldn't accept responsibility for a journalist making derogatory comments on social media.

"In Manipur, it is the local media that matters. No one cares that this has made it to international publications, no one cares that what has happened to my husband is a violation of human rights," says Elangbam who often receives Facebook messages from strangers asking her to "explain" her husband's actions. "I have seen posts where they say he does drugs, is a womaniser, has another wife, and that he works for the Congress," she says. Initially, she used to take it seriously, composing elaborate replies in her husband's defence. "Now I do not take it to heart," she says.

In Delhi last month, at a support meet for Wangkhem organised by the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) and Manipur Students Association (MSA), there were hundreds who turned up, including former Supreme Court Judge, Markandey Katju. "The protest before in Manipur had about ten people, most of them our family members, and a few who were genuinely concerned," says Elangbam.

On Tuesday, at the Sajiwa Jail, it is a two-hour wait before she sees her husband. Her daughters are at home with their aunt, and her brother Romesh, who has become her constant companion for anything related to the case, sits silently at the wheel. "I feel scared to go out sometimes," says Romesh, 35, "Who knows what these men are capable of? We are ordinary people; they are people in power."

Elangbam, on the other hand, says she worries less these days. In the 15-minute "date" in jail, the couple talks about school uniforms, admissions, an impending marriage in the family, and finances. On more tense moments, her husband tells her to "chill".

"Cool, chill, be strong. Nothing is going to happen" - that is the text he sent me the day the video first went up," says Elangbam. That is also what he had told her in 2013 when their first-born fell seriously ill. "She recovered. We got past that. We will get past this, too," says Elangbam.