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Why Modi Won't Do Away With Sedition Law

By RAMESH MENON
Last updated on: September 23, 2022 10:58 IST
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In the last ten years, 96 per cent of the sedition cases against 405 individuals pertained to making critical remarks against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, points out Ramesh Menon, author, Modi Demystified: The Making Of A Prime Minister.

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You think that a case of sedition can be slapped on you only if you do something that endangers the state or instigates violence. That is where you are wrong.

Citizens have been charged with sedition for attacking a television crew, cow smuggling, Facebook posts, protesting against the government and even dancing to a song. The list is ridiculous.

Over the years, the law has been used to stifle free speech and discourage criticism of politicians and the government. It has subtly sent a message that others can get arrested with similar charges.

Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, commonly known as the sedition law, has become a tool to punish those who speak truth to power.

More than anything, it shows what any government would do to misuse a draconian law that should have no place in a throbbing democracy like India. India has enough penal provisions to deal with the offences on which sedition charges are readily slapped.

It is not the present government that is guilty. Previous regimes of the Congress have also used it to stifle dissenting and critical voices.

In the last ten years, 96 per cent of the sedition cases against 405 individuals pertained to making critical remarks against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

Bihar led from the top with maximum cases, followed by Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Karnataka.

Expression of views unpalatable to the government cannot be labelled sedition or be a heinous crime that endangers the nation.

In the last few years, the law has targeted social workers, human rights activists, Opposition politicians, lawyers and journalists who have a critical or differing point of view from the establishment.

Article 14, a media and research group, found that in the last 12 years, over 13,000 were booked in 867 cases. Only 13 of them were found guilty of sedition (external link)!

It eloquently showed how the law had become a tool to intimidate and create fear, as these cases had no evidence to support it!

Clearly, it was to help the establishment send critics to jail to spend long terms.

In various judgments, the court held that it can be sedition only if the statement or written words had the potential to result in disorder or violence.

In 2016, five minors were charged with sedition for dancing to a song that contained the word 'mujahid'.

In 2015, the Muzaffarpur Sadar police station in Bihar filed a sedition case against actor Aamir Khan and his then-wife director Kiran Rao just because Khan said he was depressed over the rising intolerance in the country.

Four years later, the same police station filed sedition charges against 49 well-known personalities who had written a letter to Modi criticising mob lynching. Among them were historian Ramchandra Guha, film-maker and director Mani Ratnam, and actors like Aparna Sen and Konkana Sen Sharma.

In 2017, four women in Uttar Pradesh who blocked Yogi Adityanath's convoy were charged with sedition.

In 2019, student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, who were critical of the Modi government, were charged with sedition at a JNU event where some anti-India slogans surfaced. But both did not mouth those slogans.

Activist Father Stan Swamy, who spent the best years of his life fighting for the rights of tribals in Jharkhand, was charged with sedition as he was critical of the government. He died waiting for justice.

The Assam police charged journalist Anirban Roy Choudhury with sedition for writing about a lawyer who was charged with sedition.

MP Navneet Rana and MLA husband Ravi Rana were accused of sedition for saying they would recite the Hanuman Chalisa outside the chief minister's house in Mumbai.

Binayak Sen, a doctor, who worked with Adivasis and was their voice was slapped with sedition just because he had some Naxal literature with him.

Political cartoonist and activist Aseem Trivedi was booked for sedition merely for mentioning about the prevalence of corruption and unethical practices among the bureaucracy!

The law gives extraordinary powers to any government that wants to stamp out dissent.

An accused can spend around 50 days in prison until a trial court grants bail. It could be about 200 days until a high court does so.

Section 124A has turned out to be one of the most abused laws.

It was the British who whipped up this sedition law with the specific aim of crushing the rising demand for Indian Independence. Many freedom fighters were arrested and convicted under this law to spend long spells in prison.

One of them was Mahatma Gandhi for participating in anti-government protests in 1922. He was sentenced to six years but was released earlier due to health reasons. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was another freedom fighter among many others who was sentenced under this law.

The first Congress government in independent India did not think it apt to junk it as it was a convenient tool to terrorise the opposition. Instead, it was amended to make it more stringent.

In the present form, it provides for a maximum punishment of life imprisonment. You can be arrested without a warrant, and it is a cognisable, non-bailable, and non-compoundable offence.

When stalwarts like former minister and BJP leader Arun Shourie and others challenged the sedition law in the Supreme Court, judges on the bench saw no reason to let it continue as governments had abused it. They said so in clear words.

The Supreme Court said there were enough laws to deal with sedition and a specific law was not required. Moreover, it went against the basic principle of freedom of speech.

The government attempted to defend the law, but when it sensed the court's stand, it pleaded that the government would like to review it. It was apparently done to ensure that it does not get struck down. The court gave time till mid-July this year to deliberate on it, saying that till then no one could be arrested under the act, and those under trial could seek the courts for relief.

All future proceedings under Section 124A would be kept in abeyance till a final judgment is delivered.

Earlier, Chief Justice N V Ramana said that this law's continuance seriously threatened the functioning of institutions and individual liberty.

Justice Sanjay Kaul of the Supreme Court said that expression of views that did not concur with the government could not be termed seditious.

Deepak Gupta, a former Supreme Court judge, said criticism of the legislature, executive, judiciary, bureaucracy, or the armed forces could not be termed sedition. He said that if we stifled such voices, India would become a police State.

Article 19 of the Constitution guarantees the Right to Free Speech and expression, which means that dissent has been accepted as an essential constituent of democracy.

Instead of getting rid of the archaic law framed over 150 years ago, the government has asked for time to review it. In all likelihood, it is sooner or later going to come up with an amended law so that it can continue to use the sedition law to persecute those who are critical of its policies and actions.

Google Law Minister Kiren Rijjju's remarks on what he said about the need for courts to respect the government and its policies. It should indicate the way the wind is blowing.

Ramesh Menon, award-winning journalist, educator, documentary film-maker and corporate trainer, is the author of Modi Demystified: The Making Of A Prime Minister.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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