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Abhijit Iyer Mitra : Real target or a pawn in a political tussle

The debate on article 19(2) and 295A can go on while a private citizen is fighting it out against state’s might. One only hopes that our law makers also develop some sense of humour and appreciate a little sarcasm in public space. If freedom of speech is in peril, democracy is in peril.

In an unusual turn of events, noted defence analyst Abhijit Iyer Mitra, who had FIRs filed against him for hurting religious sentiments through his derogatory statements on Konark Sun temple and Odisha, was arrested by Odisha police on 23rd of October. Later in the night a local SDJM court denied him bail and has sent him to 14 days judicial custody.

Earlier last month, Abhijit Mitra had visited Odisha and flown over Chilika, Puri and Konark along with Baijayant Panda. On the next day, he went to Konark by road and made a sarcastic video which didn’t go well with many. After his return to Delhi, Odisha police seized the hangar and all the choppers belonging to Jay Panda’s company IMFA on flimsy charges.

On the same day, some BJD MLAs also protested inside assembly compound demanding the arrest of Jay Panda for flouting environmental rules. They also demanded the arrest of Abhijit Mitra for hurting Odia pride through his video on Konark.

Reacting to this Abhijit Iyer made some distasteful comments about Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik as well as his secretary VK Pandian.

In one of his tweets, he went as far as comparing Naveen with Chandashok.

2 days later on 20th October, leader of the opposition, Congress MLA Shri Narasingha Mishra moved a privilege motion against Abhijit Iyer for his nasty remarks on state legislators, which was adopted by the house. Abhijit was asked to be present before the house.

On the same day, Odisha police reached Delhi to arrest Abhijit based on the FIR lodged against him in Sahid Nagar PS, Bhubaneswar and Konark PS. He got an interim bail and evaded arrest. However, the court asked him to depose before police at the said PS for further investigation and interrogation on 28th September.

Abhijit then applied for an anticipatory bail in SC and requested relief from personal appearance showing a threat to his life in Odisha, given the widespread protests against him. However, SC denied his request saying if he feels threatened, jail is the safest place for him.

He deposed before the House committee recently. He apologised before the committee and agreed to submit a written affidavit on Nov 2. As soon as he came out of state assembly, Sahid Nagar PS arrested him on charges of 294, 295A and IT act 67.

However, the FIR at Sahid Nagar PS was not related to his video on Konark. It was rather related to some tweets he made around 1 year ago where he sarcastically remarked about the origin of the name Odisha by Bengali explorers. 

He had also tweeted about Lord Jagannath originally belonging to Kolkata which was stolen by “evil Kalinga demon king”, of course, he made these remarks in jest as is evident from the tone.

These are the 2 tweets on which the case is filed on Abhijit Iyer in Sahid Nagar PS. The FIR copy, which is available with us, charges Abhijit of hurting religious sentiments on these grounds and not on his video which he made at Konark.

He was lodged in Jharpada jail in Bhubaneswar after his bail was denied by the SDJM court. But his problems are far from being over. Police have started searching his phone records, tweets and emails.

He is also named in another FIR filed at Konark PS over his video at the Konark temple for which Konark PS has already sought his remand. He has been produced at JFMC court in Konark for bail which was also denied. The remand application by Konark police is yet to be heard pending which he has now been remanded to Judicial custody in Nimapada jail, Puri district.

This is not the first time someone passed unsavoury remarks on Odisha on social media, sarcastically or otherwise. Many have done it in the past. A social media user, who goes by the name RoflGandhi_ puts out crass jokes on the poverty of Odisha, most insensitive thing one should joke about. You can either block, mute or ignore such guys and move on. But it’s not only ordinary Twitter users, someone as senior as retired SC judge, Markandey Katju, shared this joke on Odisha and after outrage on social media, he apologised. The matter ended there.

Nobody has filed cases on such incidents earlier. So what changed this time? Why such unprecedented state excess on a private citizen. What is also extraordinary is, 1-year-old tweets are being mined from archives and people are taking offence after a year. What is different in the case of Abhijit than the other cases?

One theory is, it is easy to bully a common citizen than a retired supreme court judge. With all the state’s might, you can bully a citizen into silence; however, power is not permanent. Someone at a position of power needs to considerate, magnanimous and unprejudiced, not a bully. But this is not a case of bullying only. This also reeks of political vendetta.

Is Abhijit Iyer just a medium here, while the real target is Jay Panda? Is Abhijit being made collateral damage in the political scuffle between BJD and Panda? Is BJD trying to send a message that Jay Panda is non-negotiable? One may also notice that Abhijit had posted some very offensive tweets on CM Naveen Patnaik and his secretary VK Pandian. He also insinuated at corruption by Pandian and sabotaging the probe. CM Naveen Patnaik is not known to take criticism lightly. Such unsubstantiated insinuations may have triggered unexpected state reaction.

At the end of the day, it was sarcasm. Whether in poor taste is subjective. Some may like the sarcasm, some may dislike, some may even take offence. But persecuting a private citizen in such a manner by the state machinery to this extent shows how freedom can be muzzled by those in power.

This also shows poorly across political spectrum where not a single politician cutting across party lines have come in his support. On the contrary, the other two leading parties in Odisha, BJP & Congress, have called for his arrest and strict punishment.

Whether the tweets were malicious or intended to defame a community is for the courts to decide. But denying him bail and 14 days judicial custody for mere sarcastic tweets hints of state excess on a private citizen.

Freedom of speech was never absolute in this country. The debate on article 19(2) and 295A can go on while a private citizen is fighting it out against state’s might. One only hopes that our lawmakers also develop some sense of humour and appreciate a little sarcasm in public space. If freedom of speech is in peril, democracy is in peril.

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