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42 days and counting. In jail for a joke: This is how Abhijit Iyer Mitra got caught in the mess

Abhijit had 3 separate cases filed against him. A privilege motion in Odisha assembly, a case pertaining to his year-old tweet in one of the Bhubaneswar police station and another one filed in Konark Police Station on his video shot at Konark temple.

It’s the 42nd day today since Abhijit Iyer Mitra has been put in jail, his liberty suspended, his fate hangs in dark. All for cracking a joke, which was allegedly offensive. While a popular actor didn’t spend even 1 minute in jail after the court found him guilty and convicted him of culpable homicide, the state has ceased the freedom of a private person for mere allegedly offensive tweets posted more than a year ago, the charges for which are yet to be framed.

Read that slowly, register it, let it sink in and proceed.

Abhijit Iyer, a defence analyst with a popular think tank, visited Odisha last October with CM Naveen Patnaik’s bête noire Baijayant Panda. While on his Odisha visit, he posted a video to which some took offence. They are entitled to. The trouble didn’t start here.

During his visit, he also flew with Baijayant Panda on his chopper, over Chilika lake. State administration, in its overzealous attempt to fix Baijayanta Panda, smelt a rat here. They tried to implicate him over flouting environment norms and flying too low over Chilika, which “supposedly” is a no-flying zone. It isn’t by the way. However, they knew the case has no legs to stand on. The ploy was extended to incriminate those associated with Baijayant Panda.

The narrative was: how Baijayant Panda is bringing his friends to Odisha who have no respect for the native culture and derides our heritage.

Abhijit’s tweets from past years were dug up and a case was filed on a tweet he posted on 16th November 2017 charging him of hurting sentiments. The entire ecosystem came together. Media channels hosted primetime shows. Editorials were written. Twitter was abuzz with how an outsider has hurt our cultural sentiments. A villain was born overnight.

Abhijit, who was hardly known beyond Twitter Lutyens Zone was now a hate figure in Odisha. Media played a perfect partner to government’s witch hunting and helped in every sense to hype up public sentiment against Abhijit. Once, the tide turned against him, no politician worth his salt came forward help him because “Odia pride” was at stake. Abhijit was deserted and left to fight his battle all alone.

By now, Abhijit was facing a barrage of abuse on Twitter. It is at this moment that he did a fatal mistake of approaching the Supreme Court for anticipatory bail and to recuse him from personal appearance in Odisha fearing threat to his life. The honourable CJI thought that in the prevailing circumstances, jail is the safest place for him and that he must spend some time in jail. His life will be secure there. In any case, his comments invite religious feeling. He can’t he be entitled to bail. These were the exact words of the honourable CJI. This sealed his fate.

Abhijit had 3 separate cases filed against him. A privilege motion in Odisha assembly, a case pertaining to his year-old tweet in one of the Bhubaneswar police station and another one filed in Konark Police Station on his video shot at Konark temple.

Before we proceed, a quick word on few legalities. After police take cognisance of a crime, they take custody of the accused and forward him to a magistrate within 24 hours of arrest. In a non-bailable offence, bail isn’t a matter of right and hence not automatic, unlike bailable offence.

The prosecution may ask for police remand for custodial interrogation. In case where prosecution (Police) cannot defend its request to take remand or if they don’t ask for remand at all, the judge may grant bail or send the accused to judicial custody refusing bail. The reason for denying bail can be many. The reasons can be one among many but not limited to, where the accused is suspected to tamper with evidence, abscond, influence witnesses, not cooperate with the investigation or if his release his a threat to public order or morality.

Now let’s come back to Abhijit’s case. For the first case, i.e the privilege motion, he has already been pardoned by Odisha assembly after a written apology. For the third case, Konark police did ask for his police remand for 2 days which is now over. For the second case, Sahid Nagar police have not asked for his remand at all.

Abhijit has spent 42 days in jail because the judiciary has denied him bail. Let that be clear.

When the honourable Supreme Court opines that he should spend some time in jail as his offence isn’t entitled to a bail, in theory, it would be seen as a “shadow” contempt if an SDJM court grants him bail. So his chances of getting bail at the SDJM court were always faint. Another reason he spent so many days in jail was, Odisha HC was closed following a strike by lawyers for more than 3 months. Hence, he could not appeal against the SDJM verdict immediately. When he did, he got a date after weeks because of cases that have been piled up since these 3 months.

People ask, what were the options before administration?

What were the options before the judiciary?

What were the options before media, which was just presenting news as it happened in the state?

The administration could have chosen not to press charges at all since the charges were frivolous and the case seemed like a motivated propaganda. People do not get offended suddenly after a year. In any case, once the assembly pardoned him, the administration could have withdrawn sanction to prosecute under section 194 of CrPC, which they still can.

The judiciary could have been magnanimous in granting him bail as police didn’t ask for custodial interrogation and Abhijit is not known to tamper with evidence, abscond or influence a witness. His tweets didn’t incite any religious feelings or violence in 1 year, so it was unlikely it would have done so now.

And when it comes to media, they need to be a little pragmatic before sensationalising something. Your TRP can sound the death knell for someone. Be judicious in what you show but more importantly how you present it. Do not hype up public sentiment unnecessarily. You can report India losing to Australia in a Cricket match but “Match ka mujrim kaun” isn’t journalism.

Abhijit Iyer Mitra has complained of severe stomach pain and has been admitted to Capital Hospital, Bhubaneswar since Saturday. After 42 days of being lodged in jail, his health has started to deteriorate. He is no hardened criminal. His ‘crime’, doesn’t warrant this insensitive treatment.

His bail hearing in the High Court is due this week. As a Twitter user puts it succinctly, “even if you consider what he did as punishable, I don’t, but feel free to differ, he has suffered enough. The lordships should just grant him bail now. Let an unwell man go home; we can continue debating FoE ad infinitum”.

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