March 6, 2021
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
Sedition is the buzzword of these times. The charge has been slapped against climate activists, journalists, social activists, comedians, politicians, student protestors and authors. It’s a term that is not only bandied about carelessly by armchair experts on social media, it’s also being used to discredit those that oppose the government. What exactly is sedition and what is its legal history? Why is the law such a danger? Stay tuned to find out.
On March 3, 2021, the Supreme Court said that expressing views that are different from those of the government cannot be termed sedition. “Expression of views which are dissent and different from government opinion cannot be termed as seditious,” the court said. But over the past few years, sedition has been used as a tool to target all kinds of people.
A database compiled by the website Article 14 revealed that 96% of the sedition cases filed against 405 persons for criticising political leaders and governments over the past decade were registered after the Narendra Modi government first came to power in 2014.
Of these, 149 were accused of making “critical” or “derogatory” remarks against Prime Minister Modi and 144 against Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The cases tracked were filed between January 1, 2010, and December 31, 2020.
The number of such cases rose even as the Supreme Court repeatedly said that criticism can’t be held as sedition.
Among the more recent cases were six filed during the ongoing farmers’ protest, 22 after the Hathras gangrape and 25 during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act movement. Of these 25, 22 were registered in Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states.
Bihar, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu accounted for nearly 65% of the sedition cases. The majority of the cases in four states – Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Jharkhand – were filed while the BJP was in power.
The database showed that 65% of the 10,938 Indians accused of sedition over the past decade were charged after Modi came to power in 2014.
National Crime Records Bureau data, meanwhile, showed that 93 cases of sedition were filed in 2019, a 165% jump from 35 in 2016.
No wonder the law is seen as a tool to stifle opposition and to create an atmosphere in which the common citizen, the media and even politicians fear to speak out.
The Supreme Court has said that a sedition case cannot be made out unless the accused incites people to violence against the government or with the intention of creating public disorder. The police, however, don’t always act in line with this order. People have been accused of sedition for staging a school play that criticised Modi or for saying that “Pakistan is not hell”.
The Constitution confers on Indian citizens the freedom of speech, which naturally includes the right to oppose the government. While supporters of the government correctly point out that the rights are not absolute, the freedom to criticise our rulers is a vital component of any free society – a reasoning the courts have supported.
The problem lies in the application of the anti-sedition law. Is it being used to guard against those that incite violence or is it being used to silence free speech?
What does the law itself say?
Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which is applied in sedition cases, states: “Whoever, 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 in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which a fine may be added; or, with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added; or, with a fine.”
Section 124A has faced several legal challenges. Its validity was upheld by a Constitution Bench in 1962 in the Kedarnath Singh vs State of Bihar case, but that isn’t the full story.
That judgment dealt with whether the law is consistent with the fundamental right under Article 19 (1) (a) that guarantees freedom of speech and expression. The Supreme Court said every citizen has a right to say or write about the government, by way of criticism or comment, as long as it does not “incite people to violence” against the government or with the intention of creating public disorder.
Sedition cases tend to be weak and the official data shows that the conviction rate dropped from 33% in 2014 to just 3% in 2019. However, the process of fighting the case – from long stays in jail till bail is granted to the protracted legal battle – is an intimidation in itself.
Not surprisingly the law itself is archaic, dating back to the 1870s when India was under British rule. The UK, meanwhile, abolished its sedition law 12 years ago after a campaign against it. So, India is now in the company of Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Iran, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Senegal and Turkey that have anti-sedition legislation.
Retired Supreme Court Judge Madan Lokur was quoted in Article 14 as saying: “It is now clear (from these data) that the law is not being misused, but is being abused. It’s a great tragedy, more particularly so because from the brief description of cases, it would appear that many of them would run foul of the law laid down by the Supreme Court.”
Despite the severe criticism of sedition, there is little to indicate that the government plans to repeal the law or use it sparingly. In fact, the ruling BJP is on record defending it. Tom Vadakkan, national spokesperson of the BJP, was quoted in the media as saying: “We are a country that believes in non-violence but if there are elements that provoke and create conditions that affect the image of this country, this law is still relevant.”
In this context, the words of Additional Sessions Judge Dharmendra Rana, who granted bail in a sedition case to climate activist Disha Ravi recently, ring loud. “The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of governments,” he said. He added that citizens are “conscience keepers” of the government in any democratic nation and they cannot be put behind bars simply because they choose to disagree with state policies.
The Supreme Court order, as well as the one in the Disha Ravi case, make it clear that the rampant and indiscriminatory use of the sedition law can only restrict freedoms. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like a trend that will be reversed soon.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Mail me at email@example.com. Catch you again soon.