By Prarthana Mitra
Odisha High Court granted bail to Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, a defence analyst and Delhi-based journalist, who was arrested in October for his “derogatory and very very objectionable and vulgar comments” about the Konark Sun Temple and Lord Jagannath.
What did he do?
In September, Mitra had uploaded a video on social media where he made his low opinion of Odisha’s people, culture, and political leadership, known for which he had been summoned before a privileges committee of the State Assembly. His purported crime was describing the iconic temple as a “humple”, based on the explicit representations of sex on its fašade, thus making him an easy target of criminal prosecution for offending Hindu religious sentiment.
Odisha 9: my special message to you from the Konark temple expressing my utter disgust at this monumental conspiracy against the Hindu Civilisation pic.twitter.com/wJeqZPHRDk
— Abhijit Iyer-Mitra (@Iyervval) September 16, 2018
What action was taken against him?
Two cases were registered against him at Saheed Nagar Police Station in Bhubaneswar and Konark Police Station in Puri district. He was arrested under various sections of IPC, Information Technology Act, and Ancient Monument & Archaeological sites & Remains Act. He had been lodged in the high-securityáJharpada jail since October 23.
The journalist tendered an unconditional and unreserved apology for hisástatement against the lawmakers, saying he didn’t intend to hurt the sentiments of the people of Odisha. On November 17, the state assembly agreed to pardon him after a house committee comprising leaders from several parties recommended it.
The proposal to form a house committee was led by the Leader of Opposition Narasingha Mishra to investigate the matter, seeking Mitra’s cooperation in the matter. The committee met with Mitra several times regarding his affidavit.
The sudden pardon and bail
In his petition to the state government, Mitra requested the chief minister and the chief secretary to withhold the sanctions to prosecute him in certain criminal cases. Mitra’s case seems to have gathered public attention after his name cropped up in a case related to flying a chopper over an eco-sensitive zone.
The timing of his pardon flags other concerns as well, especially about his closeness with Patnaik’s former aide Baijayant Panda, with whom he took the helicopter ride and who was eventually suspended by the BJP in May. Furthermore, he was hospitalised over the weekend, after he complained of stomach ache, reported ANI. He has reportedly been undergoing treatment at the Capital Hospital for some ailment since late Saturday night.áThe hospitalĺs Director Chandrika Prasad Das told PTI that his condition was stable but did not specify what illness he was being treated for.
The bail also raises questions about the mercurial system where punishments are dished out and retracted within a period of one month. His bail plea was rejected as recently as November 8. However, the crux of the controversy rests on theátensions between free speech and religious beliefs that plague an increasingly polarised nation.
How did Iyer-Mitra become the victim?
Self-described as “pro-rich, anti-poor, farmer-parasite, queer, atheist”, Mitra is the son of Subramanian Swamy’s key aide V.S. Chandralekha. He has been described by various media outlets as a poseur for catering to the millennial demand for inexplicable, edgy postmodern irony. It is worth recalling at that this point that it was Mitra who said, “There is no such thing as a Odia rosogolla,” during the Twitter storm over the origins of the popular Bengali sweet.
Yet,áthe selective retribution and double standards of the BJP government somehow managed to turn Mitra into the victim here, despite his violations of Section 295 of the IPC which makes it illegal to destroy, damage or defile “any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class of persons”, and Section 153A which makes it a crime to promote enmity between different groups on grounds of religion.
Mitra garnered a considerable support base for himself ever since the video went viral. In an exemplary display of unity, the ruling Biju Janata Dal and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress all backed his action, which, after all, was aimed at highlighting the context of the troubled times we live in.
When he said that the erotic statues at Konark “are against the tradition of the Hindu community … conspiracy of the Muslims who want to denigrate us,” he said so in a thinly-veiled attempt to point out Hindu hypocrisy. More importantly, it was his way of reminding Indians to look at their ancestral pre-Abrahmanic, pre-British liberty of thought.
How free is speech in India?
Ever since its inception, the blasphemy law has been extensively used against anyone who says anything Hindu culture or Hinduism. Cartoonists, novelists, artists, and film directors such as Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, M.F. Hussain, Sanjay Leela Bhansali have all faced criminal prosecution and social persecution for apparent treason. Politically vocal Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna’s programme in the national capital was cancelled last month. A final year FTII student was barred from screening his documentary on the revolutionary Kabir Kala Manch by the ABVP mob.
Bloggers, filmmakers, journalists and, as this case has proven, even Twitter provocateurs are not safe. At the same time, right-wing leaders get away with demonising Muslims and Islam, and rejecting all other minorities their right to practice their religion without the fear of discrimination. Twitter, where Mitra cracked his jokes, abounds with threats of death and sexual violence as well as communally coloured insults, often spewed by Hindutva trolls, some evenáfollowedáby the prime minister himself. Few of these comments face the same legal consequences. Quelling all forms of dissent under such circumstances brings India precariously close to a totalitarian state and turns free speech into a joke.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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