The use and misuse of a colonial-era law
Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday, April 2, unveiled the party’s manifesto, one of whose main themes was the need to build a more liberal political order. The party said it would repeal the sedition law if it comes to power. The reaction from its critics was swift and scathing. “The Congress manifesto says IPC Section 124A will be scrapped. This means sedition will no longer be a crime. A party that makes such a promise does not deserve a single vote,” finance minister Arun Jaitley said. IPC is short for Indian Penal Code.
Section 124A is a colonial-era law that provides for imprisonment ranging between three years and life for anyone who “by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law.”
Law-enforcement agencies and the government say the provision is necessary to fight terrorism and forces working against the country; activists argue that the law is outdated and often misused.
“This law has been misused, particularly in recent years, to silence any criticism or dissent. This is absolute violation of the Supreme Court rulings that it cannot be used to punish ideological or peaceful dissent. Despite this, arrests have been made, and people jailed,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
Data from the 2016 report of the National Crime Records Bureau shows trial was completed in only three cases out of 34 in the courts. Out of these, only one resulted in conviction. In that same year, 48 people were arrested and only one convicted. Records from individual state police departments show much higher figures.
“Sedition law long outlived it’s utility. Abolished by the originators, it survives in the former colonies as an anachronism. It serves no purpose in the age of the internet, except as a draconian measure in the hands of policemen to strike fear in the minds of wavering dissenters,” said Sanjay Hegde, senior Supreme Court advocate.
To put into perspective the Congress promise to repeal the sedition law and the brouhaha caused by it, HT chronics some recent cases in which Section 124A was invoked:
A document placed in the state assembly in February said Assam saw as many as 246 cases of ‘Deshdroh’ or offences against the state since a BJP-led alliance came to power in 2016. Most of these cases have been registered at Kokrajhar in the Bodo Territorial Administrative Districts and Tinsukia in Upper Assam, areas that are affected by insurgency.
On February 18, three young men, Khairul Alam, Saikul Alam and Riyazul Haq, were booked for sedition by Assam Police. Alam had allegedly written “Pakistan Zindabad” on his Facebook account in a post related to the attack in Pulwama.
Earlier, farmers’ leader Akhil Gogoi, public intellectual Hiren Gohain and journalist-activist Manjit Mahanta were booked under the sedition law for their statements against The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. They were later granted bail by the Gauhati high court and not arrested by the police.
Bihar police lodged FIRs against five people for allegedly posting pro-Pakistan slogans on social media after the Pulwama suicide attack on February 14. They were all arrested and sent to jail. When it came to framing charges against them, the police dropped sedition and converted it into a case under 153A (prompting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion)
The most prominent recent case of sedition registered in the state was that of Bastar-based journalist Kamal Shukla,who was booked under the sedition law in April 2018 for allegedly posting a cartoon lampooning the country’s judiciary and government on Facebook. A charge sheet has not been filed in the case and Shukla got bail in August 2018.
In February 2016, sedition cases were registered against Jawaharlal Nehru University student Kanhaiya Kumar and others for allegedly shouting “anti-national slogans during an event to mark the hanging of Afzal Guru. The incident snowballed into a national controversy but no charge sheet has been filed in the sedition case because the police is awaiting the nod of the Delhi government.
In the past decade, six people have been accused of sedition in Gujarat, including Patidar quota stir leader Hardik Patel.
Patel, whose outfit Patidar Anamat Anadolan Samiti (PAAS) went on to support the Congress and who has now joined the opposition party, is facing two sedition cases for encouraging violence by young people during the agitation for job and college admission quotas for the Patidar community.
Since 2014, at least 25 cases of sedition have been registered in the state, according to government data. The most prominent of these cases was filed against members of the Dera Sacha Sauda who went on a rampage following the conviction of their leader, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh on rape charges in 2017.
On July 26, 2018, police booked at least 50 people on sedition and other charges for their alleged involvement in the Pathalgadi movement, as part of which local tribal villagers put up plaques barring outsiders from entering the village, and recognising the authority of only the village council.
As per the FIR, a copy of which is with HT, the accused allegedly disrupted the social fabric by engaging in “communal and anti-national” activities.
“They were manipulating simple tribals …through deceit, manipulation and inducement, tribals were then forced to participate in the Pathalgadi movement,” the document read. Khunti superintendent of police Alok, who goes only by his first name, said the matter was being investigated. “Charge sheet has been filed in most of the cases. As it is a sensitive matter, complete details cannot be revealed now,” he said.
The state does not keep data separately on sedition charges, said Arun Kumar Singh, inspector general (Criminal Investigation Department).
In a hamlet in northern Madhya Pradesh roughly 150 kilometres from the state capital Bhopal, Republic Day celebrations turned bloody in January. As residents gathered at a community hall in Khujner, in Rajgarh district, for an event featuring school students, a scuffle broke out between two groups. At least 12 students were caught in the clash and injured.
As tensions rose, police imposed prohibitory orders banning public assemblies of five or more people and lodged complaints against 16 people, including members of both groups. on charges of rioting and inciting violence. Two days later, the police slapped sedition charges on eight people – all Muslims – and said the members of the minority community engaged in seditious sloganeering during the ceremony that triggered the clashes.
The eight accused claimed the fight was not sparked by seditious slogans but rivalry between two local groups.
“Some local boys from another community passed us and some of them glared at us and we glared back. Soon it developed into a fight between the two groups. The police came and took us away on the pretext of medical examination. Two days later, we came to know we had been charged with sedition. I spent 19 days in jail,” said Samad Khan, 34, one of the men.
The incident brought back memories of 2017 when state police drew widespread criticism for filing sedition charges against 15 people for allegedly celebrating Pakistan’s victory in the ICC Champions Trophy final and bursting crackers. The police later dropped the charges.
The 15 men are still facing charges under IPC sections 153A (promoting enmity between other groups), among others.
In the Khujner case, the sedition proceedings against the eight men continue, and Khan received an order last week asking him to leave the district.
The reason behind the clash is still unclear – one group of locals claim it was triggered by provocative remarks and another says a fight between young Hindu and Muslim men simply spun out of control. Rajgarh superintendent of police Pradeep Sharma said investigations were still in progress. “We will file a charge sheet in the case shortly,” he said.
Journalist Kishorechand Wangkhem, who worked as an anchor for a local TV channel, was booked for sedition by the Manipur police for his comments on social media in November 2018. He allegedly criticised chief minister N Biren Singh and called him a “Hindutva puppet”. He was later released on bail by a magistrate only to be detained again by the police the next day under the National Security Act.
On February 15, a joint team of Manipur and Delhi police picked up Thokchom Veewon, the advisor and former president of Manipuri Student Association Delhi. He was charged under the sedition law for a Facebook post critical of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Last month, a court in Imphal released him on bail, and said his Facebook post, in which he spoke of self determination, was not prima-facie seditious.
According to data available since 2014, there are no cases of sedition registered in the state. However, there are 131 cases that fall under the broader category of offences against the state registered in this period.
In Mizoram, where protestors came out with placards reading ‘Hello Independent Republic of Mizoram’ and ‘Hello China’ during the February protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, no cases of sedition have been registered since 1998, said a senior police official.
Nagaland Police said five cases were registered under Section 124(A) since 2008 even as the state continues to witness incidents of violence by insurgent groups.Charge sheets have been presented in three of these cases.
A total of 292 cases of sedition were registered in Odisha between 2010 and 2018. Among prominent cases was that of trade union leader Dandapani Mohanty, who was arrested in February 2013 over alleged Maoist links. He was charged in 23 cases, and has been acquitted in 21 of them.
The state crime bureau said at least 64 people were charged with sedition in the last 10 years and all allegedly belonged to pro-Khalistan groups.
Ten cases of sedition have been registered in Rajasthan between March 2014 and 2019.
The most recent case was lodged on March 28, 2019 involving a 31-year-old man identified as Naveen Swami for allegedly posting a death threat to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Facebook. Swami, a resident of Jaipur, works at a book store.
On February 17, four students from Kashmir studying at a private university in Jaipur were booked on sedition charges for allegedly posting “anti-national” messages on social media after the Pulwama attack.
Sedition cases in the state are mostly filed against Tamil nationalists supporting the now-defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), according to state police records.
Two cases – one involving folk singer Kovan for singing songs critical of the state government and the other involving a college student, Valarmathi for distributing pamphlets against the Chennai-Salem expressway project triggered widespread outrage. At least 8,000 people were charged with sedition in 2011 for protesting the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project.
At least 17 cases of sedition were filed in Telangana state since its formation in 2014, but not many reached the trial stage. “No one was summoned or arrested in these cases as they are either weak or police lacked sufficient evidence to prove that the accused really resorted to sedition,” an official of the state crime records bureau said on condition of anonymity.
State police data said two people were booked under sedition charges in the last 10 years. The two were identified as Kulwinder Singh and Harjeet Singh, accused of allegedly running a pro Khalistan Whatsapp group that espoused a separate Sikh homeland.
Arpit Srivastava, a media consultant, faced the toughest phase of his life when he, his father and six others were charged with sedition after the statue of former chief minister Mayawati was demolished on July 26, 2012.
Srivastava, who was just 23 then, lost his first job and was put in jail for 50 days. His elder brother Ankit Srivastava, who was looking at legal aid for him and his father, suffered cardiac arrest and died. “We were the victims of politics,” he said.
He had arrange a press conference for a group that opposed the construction of the statues. At the event, one of the speakers threatened to demolish the statues. Soon after, four members of the group, along with Srivastava and his father, were charged with demolishing one of the marble statues of Mayawati.
The sedition charge was dropped by the Allahabad high court in 2016. The state recorded 70 cases of sedition between 2014 and 2018.
“Proving a sedition charge isn’t easy. There are set guidelines of the Supreme Court on this as to when the sedition charge can be invoked. Usually a sedition charge is dropped midway and replaced,” said a senior police official.
Asim Arun, inspector general of the UP anti-Terror Squad, said the unit had recently secured the conviction of four people charged with sedition in two different terror-related cases .
In September 2017, West Bengal police arrested three Gorkha Janamukti Morcha leaders from Gurugram in Haryana, barely a few days after they met Union home minister Rajnath Singh in New Delhi as part of a delegation to press their demand of separate Gorkhaland state. All of them got out on bail after spending three months in jail when the police failed to submit a charge sheet.
Cases registered under sedition were not recorded separately between 2010 and 2013. “We maintain records on cases relating to one or any specific section of IPC only if the NCRB asks for it. If there are no records for a certain period it means we were not asked to keep it,” said D P Tarenia, director general of police, West Bengal crime records bureau.