A woman holds a placard next to policemen during a protest against the arrest of climate activist Disha Ravi, Bengaluru, February 15, 2021 (REUTERS)
A woman holds a placard next to policemen during a protest against the arrest of climate activist Disha Ravi, Bengaluru, February 15, 2021 (REUTERS)

Can a protest toolkit attract sedition law?

Can the three activists be accused of instigating armed confrontation against the State? The evidence, so far, is certainly not enough to justify the charge. Yes, there was a propaganda blitz, aimed at garnering international support, based on a narrative of strong-arm tactics on the part of the government to crush the farm movement and discredit its efforts towards a solution. But the State could have had an alternative, more effective, response.
By Yashovardhan Azad
UPDATED ON FEB 19, 2021 06:24 PM IST

Democracies all over the world struggle to find the right balance between free speech and sedition. Some have abolished the sedition law altogether, including England in 2009, but India continues with it as a British legacy. Section 124A was added to Chapter VI of the Indian Penal Code in 1870 to deal with offences against the State. It defines any action that brings or attempts to bring hatred or contempt towards the Government of India.

The key question today is whether the sedition law invoked against three activists — Disha Ravi, Nikita Jacob and Shantanu Muluk — is justified or does it display the mighty hand of the State to stifle dissent?

The Delhi Police have branded the three activists as collaborators in an international conspiracy to denigrate the Republic by resorting to violence and creating mayhem during the tractor rally on January 26. Central to the conspiracy argument is a toolkit, which was allegedly responsible for the call for global action and physical action on Republic Day. The three activists are arraigned as editors of the toolkit. The cyber unit of the Delhi Police, the lead agency for this probe, also discovered hyperlinks of Khalistan literature in the text of the toolkit. The Delhi Police have selectively leaked WhatsApp chats between Ravi and Greta Thunberg, who first tweeted out the toolkit. The chat documents Disha’s fears of being held under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for sharing the toolkit.

What is a toolkit? Its dictionary meaning suggests it is a set of tools, especially one kept in a bag or box and used for a particular purpose. It is still not clear how the toolkit in question attracts the sedition law. It calls for, inter alia, a Twitter storm, protests at various Indian embassies, reaching out to public representatives. The police have not clarified the nature and details of physical action in the text. It, therefore, appears to be a standard operating procedure for mobilising people in support of the farm protests.

There are two issues on which the activists can be faulted. First, they should have screened the text of toolkit carefully, looking at the hyperlinks displaying any Khalistan literature. Second, they cannot claim innocence of the credentials of the Khalistani activist, Mo Dhaliwal, when they joined a meeting called by him on Zoom with 50 others.

The details of this meeting are not available but, given the interest of Dhaliwal’s group, Sikhs for Justice, a banned outfit, in any anti-government protest, one can conjecture that the meeting had to do with various issues relating to farmers and their plans for the January 26 rally. Did the meeting also call for violence and confronting the police on the day of the rally? This aspect calls for a deeper probe.

But, despite this, was the arrest of Disha Ravi necessary? Forensics is a powerful tool and the police were already in possession of her laptop and mobile, from where all possible information could have been ferreted out. While it may be necessary to firmly establish whether she had an active role in planning and plotting violence on the said day, a pre-trial arrest is actually a case of punishment in advance. Two-thirds of our jails are filled with under-trials who should actually be out on bail. The Supreme Court has often said that the sedition law must not be used indiscriminately. It is also crucial to investigate whether an act leads to incitement to violence before labelling it an offence of this nature.

Can the three activists be accused of instigating armed confrontation against the State? The evidence, so far, is certainly not enough to justify the charge. Yes, there was a propaganda blitz, aimed at garnering international support, based on a narrative of strong-arm tactics on the part of the government to crush the farm movement and discredit its efforts towards a solution. But the State could have had an alternative, more effective, response.

Western nations which speak up against human rights violations are the same countries which support the laws to free agriculture from middlemen and bringing in competition. Indian embassies in western capitals should have gone into overdrive to explain the rationale of the farm laws, how the government has allowed the long, overdrawn siege without coercion, and even gave permission for the rally on Republic Day despite the reservations of security authorities. At a more macro-level, it is also time to look at our sedition law. It serves no purpose using it against our own citizens. Few charge-sheets are filed after lodging such cases, with even fewer convictions secured from them.

The government needs to revisit its approach to the farm rally and the attendant violence. It should come down hard on the culprits desecrating the Red Fort, attacking policemen and plundering State property. It should probe the role of Sikhs for Justice in funding and the Poetic Justice Foundation in fomenting violence, and get hard evidence to seek extradition of its key leaders from Canada and other countries. But what should be done with the activists? Just let them go free after a warning. A pardon will reveal the real might of a democratic State to its free citizens.

Yashovardhan Azad is a former IPS officer and Central Information Commissioner The views expressed are personal

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