The Indian man in prison for cracking 'offensive' jokes

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Abhijit Iyer-Mitra has been in prison since 23 October

For nearly a month, a 41-year-old Indian man has been in prison for posting five satirical tweets.

In September, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, a Delhi-based defence specialist with some 20,000 Twitter followers posted what he himself described as a "disparaging" video from a visit to the 13th Century Konark temple in the eastern state of Orissa.

Following outrage against his "vulgar" comments about the temple, which features erotic sculptures, he quickly clarified that the tweet was a joke, and the sculptures were "exquisite". The other tweets appear to be making fun of the people of the state and another of its famous temples.

Two locals filed police complaints saying the tweets had hurt the sentiments of the 40 million people who live in Orissa, which is known for its historic temples, sun-washed beaches and delicious cuisine. It's another matter that there has been no public agitation against Mr Iyer-Mitra for his comments and that one of his offending tweets got just seven likes and one retweet.

Multiple charges

But Mr Iyer-Mitra has been slapped with a bewildering array of charges for his "crimes".

He's been accused of promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and race in a place of worship, insulting religious feelings and creating "public nuisance". He has been charged with an "obscene act in a public place". A protection of ancient monument law has been invoked to charge him with misuse of the Konark temple where he recorded his video. And the information and technology law has been dredged up to charge him with sending offensive messages.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Iyer-Mitra posted a video from Orissa's famous Konark temple

As if all this was not enough, Mr Iyer-Mitra has also been accused of defamation under a controversial colonial-era law. At least two of the charges are non-bailable and, if found guilty, he could spend five years in prison.

Mr Iyer-Mitra has apologised unreservedly - "I beg apology because of my stupidity," he said - to Orissa's lawmakers. Despite that, police have pressed on with the charges and a lower court has refused to grant him bail, saying he could intimidate witnesses or tamper with evidence. (Such apprehensions have been rubbished by a former Supreme Court judge.)

Twice, Mr Iyer-Mitra's bail pleas in the lower court have been rejected. Even the Supreme Court has refused to grant him bail saying he was "inciting religious faith". The top court judge said jail was the safest place for him if he feared for his life, a remark which rights group Amnesty International found "deeply worrying".

To make matters worse, a 78-day-old strike by lawyers in Orissa protesting against the alleged assault of a colleague has meant that Mr Iyer-Mitra has had to personally plead for bail in makeshift courts set up in the prison where he's being held.

He also appears to have become a pawn in a political game involving a prominent local MP who has fallen foul of the state's chief minister.

When he made his "objectionable" video, Mr Iyer-Mitra was a guest of Baijayant "Jay" Panda, a former member of parliament who was forced out of Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik's political party. Many believe Mr Patnaik was looking to embarrass Mr Panda and the video came in handy to do just that.

That Mr Panda was hosting someone who is seen to have made disparaging comments against the people of Orissa has put him in an immensely uncomfortable position, following what many believe was orchestrated outrage.

Mr Iyer-Mitra, who works with the think-tank Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, has always been a bit of gadfly on social media. A columnist and researcher who knows him well says he has "never hidden that he is provocative" and that he was "often incorrect, sometimes correct" in his provocations.

'Hurting sentiments'

Ironically, earlier this year, Mr Iyer-Mitra tweeted that a criminal case should be filed against American historian Audrey Truschke for allegedly abusing a Hindu god and "hurting sentiments".

"Bog her down in the legal system - can't leave on bail," he wrote. He has also tweeted about putting human rights activists and Communists in prison. One of his friends told me that most of his tweets were written in jest and "he now possibly regrets posting some of them".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Orissa is known for its beaches

Whatever the case, many believe that jailing a person for posting jokes, however offensive some people may find them, is an attack on the freedom of speech.

Mr Iyer-Mitra has been kept in a prison cell for these alleged offences, partly because of a slow judicial system, and partly because of the growing climate of intolerance sweeping India, they say. The fact that a senior federal minister has almost justified his arrest, saying those who "hurt Orissa's pride should be brought to book" also betrays the complete apathy of politicians to safeguarding the freedom of expression.

Rights group Amnesty International tweeted on Tuesday that the government "must release" Mr Iyer-Mitra.

Others like columnist Kanchan Gupta believe Mr Iyer-Mitra's arrest proved that India is "slipping into a zone where freedom is in danger".

Putting Mr Iyer-Mitra in prison for cracking jokes smacks of petty vindictiveness and damages India's already wobbly reputation as a liberal democracy.

Free speech appears to be in peril all around: journalists have been arrested, independent media has been under attack, internet shutdowns have become common, and cases of defamation, sedition and censorship are on the rise.

Comparisons will be drawn to the former Soviet Union where a teacher was put in prison in the 1950s for telling a joke. Now it seems India needs to be reminded that the right to tell people what they often do not want to hear, even in jest, is inalienable.