Tausif Ahmad, who worked with a mobile phone company in Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, was arrested from Sagar district, Madhya Pradesh, on August 4. Ahmad, a native of Baramulla district in Jammu and Kashmir, has been charged under Section 124 (A) of the Indian Penal Code and sent on 15-day judicial remand for “forwarding, sharing and liking these [anti-India] posts.” According to Amresh Mishra, Superintendent of Police, Durg, the serious charge of sedition was slapped on Ahmad for “one (Facebook post) [that] represents India as a mouse, while another shows China recognising Kashmir as disputed. The police, it seems, did not have much clue about Ahmad’s “anti-India” activities, it was the hyperactive local VHP — the group that raised sedition charges against student leader Kanhaiya Kumar couple of months ago — that filed the complaint, saying that Ahmad’s Facebook timeline is “filled with posts asking for Kashmir’s freedom”.
Interestingly, in an interview to a national daily, Mishra said that the police’s “main point of investigation is to find out who posted these items, and [since] it is a cyber-based investigation, it will take some time”.
If that’s so, what was the hurry in slapping the sedition law on Ahmad?
Condemning the arrest, Amnesty International’s Arijit Sen said: “The right to freedom of expression extends to speech that may be considered offensive by some. A criminal case for such conduct is not justified”.
The organisation also said that courts have ruled that expression can be restricted on grounds of public order only when it involves incitement to imminent violence or disorder. In 2015, the Supreme Court struck down Section 66A of Information Technology Act, a provision which placed vague and overbroad restrictions on online expression, observing: “Mere discussion or even advocacy of a particular cause howsoever unpopular is at the heart of the right to freedom of expression. Court stated that advocacy could be restricted only when it reaches level of incitement.”
Ahmad’s case is however not the first time the State has abused its power. In 2012, two Palghar-based girls were arrested for their FB posts criticising the shutdown of the city for Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s funeral. In the same year, two more cases showed governments irrespective of their political colour can be equally vicious: A chemistry professor from Jadavpur University in West Bengal was arrested for posting a cartoon lampooning chief minister Mamata Banerjee on social media and a businessman was held in Puducherry for making allegations on Twitter against Karti Chidambaram, son of former Union finance minister P Chidambaram.
In March this year, a month after the arrest of Kumar on charges of treason that lead to a political outcry, the Narendra Modi-led government admitted in Parliament that the sedition law — Section 124 (A) — was a broad-brush measure and needed a review.
The law panel too has conveyed that it has identified certain focus areas and formed subgroups to deliberate on allegations of abuse and arbitrary use of the law.
Under the colonial era sedition law anybody who “by words — either spoken or written — brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government” can be sent to jail for life.
In 1962, the Supreme Court had, however, read down the provision even as it upheld the constitutional validity of Section 124(A) despite it restricting the right to free speech and expression:“…words and speech can be criminalised and punished only in situations where it is being used to incite mobs or crowds to violent action. Mere words and phrases by themselves, no matter how distasteful, do not amount to a criminal offence unless this condition is met,” the top court had ruled, holding the restrictions are within the ambit of permissible legislative interference and in public interest.
Going by this definition, Ahmad’s case is one more instance of abuse of the sedition law by a police team operating under political pressure.