Fear and loathing in ‘sedition land’

Fear and loathing in ‘sedition land’

People protested against the Bidar sedition case in Bengaluru recently. dh Photo/ Janardhan B K

A weeping 11-year-old girl awaiting the return of her mother from police custody in Karnataka’s Bidar district has become the poster child of protests against the sedition law. Her mother and the principal of her school were arrested recently for staging a play in the school criticising the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).

Police claimed that the children who were part of the play at Shaheen Primary School had allegedly portrayed Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a poor light, and made disparaging comments against him.

Also Read: Sedition Cases slapped on celebrities withdrawn as fast as they were lodged

Police also reported that Najamunissa, the illiterate widowed mother of the child in question, allegedly taught her daughter to say “joote marenge” (We will hit you with a slipper) to anyone who comes asking for documents.

Civil society and the political parties in opposition have criticised the government for misusing the colonial-era law.

In another instance, a sedition case was filed against a former college student in Mysuru, who held a ‘Free Kashmir’ placard during an anti-CAA protest. Another student, who organised the protest, was also booked. Although the two have been granted anticipatory bail by the court after rendering unconditional apologies, surrendering their passports and depositing a sum of Rs 50,000 as a bond, they faced many hurdles initially as the Mysuru Bar Association refused to represent the accused.

The two recent cases in Karnataka once again underline that every section of a society — students, teachers, peaceful protesters, social media users, artistes, tribal people and even politicians — is vulnerable and can become a victim of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with sedition. Ironically, the law was introduced to quell India’s Independence movement.

While the definition of sedition remains in the statute books, its meaning and classification have been widened by successive governments by trivialising the law and using it as a powerful tool to quell dissent and freedom of expression. A mere slogan while peacefully protesting a project or legislation can land Indian citizens in jail and subsequently ruin their lives.

Also Read: 'Sedition is a necessary legal provision'

Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested on charges of sedition for a cartoon criticising the UPA-II government during the anti-corruption protests in 2011. A few years later, in 2016, the then Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union leader Kanhaiya Kumar and other students were booked under the law for allegedly raising anti-India slogans during a protest march.

While the case against Trivedi was revoked after the government received flak, Kanhaiya’s case drags on.

Such cases highlight the amount of impunity with which the government acts when it comes to quelling dissent.

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, while moving the first amendment to the Constitution in 1951, had termed the presence of sedition in statute books as “highly objectionable and obnoxious”.

 

 

But neither Nehru nor his successors, irrespective of the party in power, took any concrete step to do away with the law. The punitive actions continue unabated despite the apex court making it amply clear that mere sloganeering and instances of criticism of the government or those in power do not qualify to pass the test of what constitutes as sedition.

Justice D Hariparanthaman, a former judge of the Madras High Court, sums up the situation vis-à-vis sedition saying that the very laws drafted in the interest of national security are now used to prevent citizens from exercising their basic rights.

Also Read: Kudankulam: 8 years on, fear rules villages

“Sedition means waging a war against the country, and nothing else. How can a person who shouts slogans be booked under sedition?” he asked.

Recalling the Supreme Court’s 1995 judgement in Balwant Singh vs the State of Punjab, the former judge said the verdict clarified that mere shouting of slogans — in said case it was ‘Khalistan Zindabad’ — does not amount to sedition.

“The law is not just being misused but misunderstood as well,” he added. Also, the lives of those booked under sedition have been ruined in most cases — they face social stigma, cannot apply for a passport, and can’t dream of landing a government job until they are cleared of the charges.

In Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district, nearly 9,000 people were booked under Section 124(A) between 2011 and 2013 for protesting the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KNPP), and a majority of them are still jobless or have menial jobs.

‘Powerful’ tool

Though there has been an increase in filing of cases under Section 124(A) in the past few years, for which data is available (data on sedition was only recorded by National Crime Records Bureau beginning 2014), the conviction rate has been very poor, suggesting that the police is struggling to muster evidence against the alleged accused.

Police forces have managed conviction only in four out of the 43 cases where the trial has been completed in the past five years. While none of the four cases in which trial was completed in 2015 ended in a conviction, 2018 saw the smallest conviction rate of 15.4% compared to 2016 (16.7%) and 2017 (33.3%).

“Conviction rate is low for most crimes, but, despite several safeguards — court remedy, official government sanction, guidelines from previous Supreme Court and High Court judgements — the investigative process might happen against you because the safeguards kick in only after the matter reaches the court. All I have to do is register the FIR and then it’s you who will be runnning from pillar to post to avail remedies ranging from acquittal, discharge, bail or quashing,” explained Kunal Ambasta, professor at National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.

S P Udayakumar, who faces dozens of sedition cases for participating in protests against the KNPP, said, “Section 124A has been reduced to a joke by the governments. How can protesting a project in the most peaceful manner amount to sedition?”

Senior Supreme Court advocate Sanjay R Hegde told DH that governments have made a “lot of noise” about repealing the sedition law, but none have moved from rhetoric to action. “Almost all governments and parties have misused the law to curb dissent. Sedition is easy to allege but difficult to prove. The presence of the Section in the books allows governments to use it for political purposes ,” he told DH.

Though the governments led by the Congress had used the sedition law, the party, in its 2019 Lok Sabha election manifesto, had promised to repeal Section 124A. However, the Narendra Modi government has made it clear in July last year that it has no plans to scrap the law, despite a Law Commission consultation paper emphasising the need to re-examine the law.

“There is a need to retain the provision to effectively combat anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements,” Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai told the Rajya Sabha in a written reply in July, 2019.

 

(Mrityunjay Bose, Shemin Joy, Arjun Raghunath, B R Gururaj and Shruthi H M Sastry contributed to the reporting)

 

 

 

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