PEN Delhi is dismayed and shocked at the arrest and continuing incarceration of writer and defence analyst Abhijit Iyer-Mitra.
Iyer-Mitra has been arrested, his bail rejected, and he has been sent to prison, according to the Odisha police, for “derogatory and very very objectionable and vulgar comments” about “Odiya culture, people of Odisha and Lord Jagannath” on Twitter. The Odisha Police statement further said that, “His frivolous comment on rasogolla is not at all a ground for legal action against him.” However, the comments on Twitter, for which Abhijeet Iyer Mitra has been imprisoned, do in fact stem from a conversation which has arisen from a debate, half in jest, on whether the rasogolla (an Indian sweet) originated in West Bengal or Odisha. The sequence of Tweets for which Iyer-Mitra is facing action have been listed further on in this statement.
Iyer-Mitra has been sent to judicial custody for 14 days.
The Odisha police statement adds that “Mr Mitra’s malicious and defamatory comments have also hurt the religious feelings of devotees of Lord Jagannath” and that “these comments are also detrimental and prejudicial to the peaceful and harmonious communal environment of the state.”
Iyer-Mitra has two cases registered against him. He was arrested after having been made to appear and apologise before the House Committee of the Odisha Assembly over a breach of privilege motion. He has been asked to appear before the committee again on November 2.
Action against Iyer-Mitra was initiated after he put out a satirical and humorous tweet and video on the Konark temple in Odisha on the 16th of September. His tweet read:
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra (@Iyervval; the video can be found on the tweet linked to the date at the end): “Odisha 9: my special message to you from the Konark temple expressing my utter disgust at this monumental conspiracy against the Hindu Civilisation” September 16, 2018
The satirical nature of this tweet and video is especially underlined by a tweet Iyer-Mitra posted shortly after this one, in a more serious vein, appreciating the same temple. This tweet read:
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra (@Iyervval): “Odisha 10: Jokes aside this temple is just mindblowing. The sculptures are exquisite & and it has a great sense of symmetry & gravitas.” September 16, 2018
A day after his arrest, Iyer-Mitra’s older tweets were trawled and a second case was filed against him for comments tweeted in the spirit of humour. These comments were part of a Twitter conversation that discussed the deity Lord Jagannath, the fish delicacies of ‘rui and ‘ilish’ as well as the rossogolla and its origin. The exchange of tweets between Iyer-Mitra and those in conversation with him can be viewed below:
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra (@Iyervval): “Oriya propaganda!!!! Jagannath was actually a diety of Kolkata, idol stolen by evil kalinga demon kings” September 14, 2017
This was in response to:
Chaula Bara (@NitiBakya): “:) actually it’s the other way round. You can stop the aloo nonetheless” September 14, 2017
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra (@Iyervval): “Shocking assault on Bengali pride by noted parliamentarian – please Bengali braathars & shishtaars no more Rui & Ilish exports to Odisha” September 13, 2017
Jay Panda (@PandaJay): “Not content with trying to steal the origins of the rossogola, eh
The humorous nature of the above Twitter conversation is underscored by the comments in response to them, including ones with laugh emoticons.
As ridiculous for this tragicomic series of events to have occurred and PEN Delhi to have to condemn them, the hard fact is that they have resulted in Abhijeet Iyer Mitra being imprisoned for some days now. The shocking state action against Iyer-Mitra highlights once more and irrevocably how draconian the country’s colonial era anti-free speech laws are and how they may be misused at the leisure of anyone wishing to harass a writer in this country.
PEN Delhi calls for Iyer-Mitra’s release and the quashing of charges against him by the authorities concerned. This attack on his rights sets a dangerous precedent and makes every writer in this country vulnerable to similar attacks.