seema 20120702 A Stick Called 124(A)

Sentenced Seema and her husband Vijay being taken to jail

sedition law: misuse
The State finds a handy tool in a colonial law to quell dissent
Panini Anand , Debarshi Dasgupta | outlook

Wrong Arm Of The Law

Why ‘sedition’ rings hollow in India 2012
The law Section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code, 1870; non-bailable offence

The definition 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

The accusers Other than the State, even individuals are free to file charges

The punishment Imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.

The misuse While the Supreme Court has specifically laid down that the provisions of section 124(A) are only made out where there is a tendency to public disorder by use of violence or incitement to violence, the clause has been grossly misused. While convictions are rare, the long and tortuous legal process is seen as a deterrent to others.

The victims The law is being used to punish fierce critics of the government, including political
dissenters, human rights activists and journalists

Global status

UK abolished sedition laws in 2010
New Zealand repealed it in 2008

***

Prakash Ram, a farmer from a village near Haldwani in Uttarakhand, had never heard of Mao Tse Tung. Ironically enough, his first lesson on Chairman Mao and his ideology came not from some gun-toting guerrilla but the Uttarakhand police. Accusing him of being a Maoist, they arrested him oncharges of sedition on August 30, 2004. It has taken eight years for the 28-year-old to be finally cleared of the taint, by the Rudrapur sessions court this month. “I spent two of the best years of my life behind bars (he was granted bail in 2006) and six more years in my legal battle for justice,” he says. “I may be free now but this arrest has spoilt my reputation and will make it difficult for me to get work. Who will pay for this? Will someone be held responsible?”

The dark days of Emergency, rung in 37 years ago this week, may have become a distant memory for some, but for many others, an Emergency-like situation is a recurring reality. Just as in 1975 and the year after, when the State suppressed dissent and abolished civil rights, the democratic republic of India continues to target disaffected voices and accuse of sedition anyone it sees as a threat.

prakash ram 20120702 A Stick Called 124(A)

Lost years Prakash Ram, a farmer from Haldwani, accused of being a Maoist. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)

Rajinder Sachar, a retired chief justice of the Delhi High Court, thinks the situation today is actually worse. “In 1975,” he says, “the Emergency was more of a political game played by one political party but now everyone is restricted from speaking. One law after the other is passed, stopping one from speaking openly. A situation is being created where anybody can be declared anti-national. We are actually going through an undeclared Emergency.”

One of the latest victims of Section 124(A), a law that deals with sedition and which is a handy tool for the government to target trenchant critics, is Seema Azad and her husband Vishwa Vijay. A journalist couple from Allahabad, they had written fearlessly about corruption and illegal mining in Uttar Pradesh. Charged with sedition, the two were sentenced to life imprisonment and a fine of Rs 70,000 by a sessions court in Allahabad on June 8.

Seema and Vijay were arrested in February 2010 at the Allahabad railway station on their return from New Delhi. They were accused of being members of the banned CPI (Maoist) group simply because the police deemed the literature recovered from them to be “anti-national”. Their advocate Ravi Kiran Jain argues that this verdict ignores the observations the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court made in 2011 while hearing the bail plea of Dr Binayak Sen, who too was charged with sedition. “If someone has the autobiography of Gandhi at his home, will he be called a Gandhian,” the apex court had famously asked the prosecution lawyer. “Even in this case,” says Jain, “Seema and her husband were simply in possession of some literature on Maoism. This does not make them Maoists.” The advocate now plans to file an appeal on behalf of the duo in the Allahabad High Court.

piyush sethia 20120702 A Stick Called 124(A)

Mission aborted Salem’s Piyush Sethia

Other than Dr Sen and the Allahabad couple, there were at least six other high-profile cases involving sedition in 2010. They include Arundhati Roy, who was booked under Section 124(A) for making a speech supporting azadi in Kashmir, and Salem-based environmental activist Piyush Sethia, who was accused of sedition for disrupting a Republic Day ceremony in Salem in 2010 by attempting to distribute a controversial anti-mining leaflet. In fact, things took on a farcical turn when Srinagar-based lecturer Noor Mohammed Bhatt was slapped with the sedition charge in December the same year for including a question in an English paper asking if stone-pelters were the real heroes and asking students to translate from Urdu to English a passage that read, “Kashmiri blood is being spilled like water, Kashmiri children are being killed by police and Kashmiri women are being showered with bullets.”

There is no official record of the total number of cases involving sedition, but the sudden spurt in such cases has generated much concern. Civil rights groups have launched a nationwide campaign to have the law repealed. Says veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, who was in jail during the Emergency, “The sedition law is a weapon in the hand of the State which evokes doubts, suspicion and hatred in the mind of the people against whom the charges are made. Such an undemocratic and anti-people law must be repealed immediately. In fact, it should have been done many years back.” Most of these cases (see Memories of Another Day) have targeted people who have fearlessly spoken up for the rights of the marginalised, especially the Dalits and tribals.

It was for this reason that Sudhir Dhawale, a Dalit rights activist from Mumbai, was picked up by the Maharashtra police from Wardha in January last year for being a “Naxal supporter”. Still lodged in a Nagpur jail, many speculate the real reason he was picked up was his writings and activities that helped mobilise Dalits for their rights. Like him, Gananath Patra, the 73-year-old convenor of Chasi Muliya Adivasi Sangh in Narayanpatna in Orissa, too was charged with sedition and put behind bars in January 2010. He was released on bail earlier this month due to poor health but on the condition that he must not engage in any activism. He had earlier helped tribals in and around Narayanpatna take back around 10,000 acres of land that had been forcefully acquired from them.

Of course, it is activism in areas under the grip of left-wing extremism that the government is extremely sensitive about. Sethia, the Salem-based activist, found himself in the crosshairs precisely for this. Carrying pamphlets criticising Operation Green Hunt, he was set to spread his message cycling all the way to Sivaganga, the constituency Union home minister P. Chidambaram represents. However, the Tamil Nadu police arrested him in Salem itself, even before he could distribute the pamphlets at the R-Day ceremony there. Out on bail since February 2010, the sedition charges still hold. The real cause for his arrest though, Sethia believes, is his fight against illegal mining in the region. He was the main litigant in a case in the Madras High Court that resulted in the closure of a local mining unit that belonged to Vedanta. Funnily enough, there has not been a single hearing in Sethia’s case so far. “Either they should drop the charges, or they should go ahead with the case and finish it off. It is a sort of leash on my activities,” says Sethia, whose questioning gaze encompasses areas like the Forests Rights Act and water pollution and privatisation.

koodankulam 20111107 A Stick Called 124(A)

The nuclear flashpoint Koodankulam agitators are viewed with suspicion

Nuclear energy is another area that the government, including at the state level, has begun to get touchy about. The slightest whiff of opposition is promptly dismissed as anti-national. Little wonder then that as many as 3,500 protesters were charged with sedition in the aftermath of the Koodankulam protests in Tamil Nadu, where locals were agitating against the construction of a nuclear power plant. Says V. Suresh, an advocate at the Madras High Court and someone who has spent time with the locals, “While laws are meant to protect the people, in this case, the sedition law has been clearly misused by the government to further its interests.”

Anand Swaroop Verma, Delhi-based editor of monthly journal Samkaleen Teesri Duniya, expresses concern at a different level. This crackdown by the State, he says, has been met with only rare instances of media criticism and scrutiny. He attributes this to a media cooption strategy which ensures reporting of sedition cases is largely favourable towards the government. “Six years back, the PM, in a conference on internal security with CMs, had urged them to coopt the media and get them to play a more positive role in the fight against terrorism,” he adds. The media, of course, often colludes wilfully.

Even when filed on flimsy grounds, the legal hassles and harassment the sedition charge involves serve as a deterrent to others, forced as they are to think twice before taking on the might of the State. Ask E. Rati Rao, vice president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Karnataka. While she was booked under sedition for asking uncomfortable questions on encounter deaths in the Malanadu area in October 2007, the case against her was dismissed in September 2010 after the police failed to file a chargesheet. “All they wanted to do was just terrorise me, and by doing so, terrorise others,” she says. “This sedition law and democracy do not go together. It is leading the State towards fascism.”

For a Congress-led government that draws its inspiration and legacy from Jawaharlal Nehru, it would do well to act on what the country’s first prime minister had to say on the sedition clause in a parliamentary debate in 1951 on the First Amendment to the Constitution. “Now so far I am concerned that particular section (124-A) is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons…the sooner we get rid of it the better.”

***

Memories Of Another Day

How a repressive 19th-century law is being indiscriminately unleashed on citizens fighting for the rights of their fellow citizens

  • Jogendra Chandra Bose The first case, in 1891, when the editor of Bangobasi was charged for criticising the British govt’s move to raise the age on consensual sex from 10 to 12, and for commenting on the negative economic impact of British colonialism
  • Mahatma Gandhi Charged, along with Shankerlal Banker, the proprietor of Young India, for three articles in the weekly. Convicted in 1922.
  • Balgangadhar Tilak The British govt alleges his speeches instigated the murder of two British officers. Convicted in 1897, 1905, 1916.
  • Manoj Shinde Editor, Surat Saamna, charged in Aug ’06 for using “abusive words” against Narendra Modi in an editorial alleging administrative failure in tackling the Surat flood situation
  • Kahturam Sunani Journalist, OTV, Charged in May 2007 in Sinapali, Orissa, for filing a report that Pahariya tribals were consuming ‘soft’ dolomite stones in Nuapada district due to acute hunger.
  • Binayak Sen Doctor & Human Rights Activist. Charged in May 2007 in Raipur for allegedly helping courier messages to Maoist leaders. Sen had criticised the Chhattisgarh govt’s support to the vigilante group Salwa Judum.
  • E. Rati Rao Resident Editor, Varthapatra, charged in Oct 2007 2010 in Mysore, Karnataka, for an article alleging encounter deaths in Karnataka.
  • Prashant Rahi, Journalist, charged in Dec 2007 for allegedly possessing Naxal literature
  • Bharat Desai Resident Editor, Times of India, Ahmedabad Gautam Mehta Photographer, Gujarat Samachar Charged in Jun 2008 for articles and photographs alleging links between the Ahmedabad Police Commissioner and the underworld
  • Kirori Singh Bainsla Gujjar community leader Charged in Jun 2008 in Bayana, Rajasthan, for leading an agitation demanding ST status for Gujjars
  • Lenin Kumar Editor, Nishan, Charged in Dec 2008 in Bhubaneshwar for publishing a booklet on the Kandhamal riots entitled ‘Dharmanare Kandhamalre Raktonadhi’ (Kandhamal’s rivers of blood)
  • Laxman Choudhury Journalist, Sambadh, Charged in Sep 2009 in Gajapati district, Orissa, for allegedly possessing Maoist literature. Choudhury had been writing about the involvement of local police in illegal drug trafficking.
  • V. Gopalaswamy (Vaiko) Politician, MDMK, Charged in Dec 2009 in Chennai for allegedly making remarks against India’s sovereignty at a book launch function
  • Piyush Sethia Environmentalist and Organic Farmer, charged in Jan 2010 in Salem, Tamil Nadu, for trying to distribute pamphlets during protest against Chhattisgarh govt’s support to Salwa Judum
  • Niranjan Mahapatra, Avinash Kulkarni, Bharat Pawar, others Trade union leaders and social activists Gujarat police allege links with CPI (Maoist).
  • Arundhati Roy, S.A.R. Geelani, Varavara Rao, Shuddhabrata Sengupta, others Private complaint in Nov 2010 in Delhi alleging their speeches on Kashmir in a seminar are anti-India
  • Noor Mohammed Bhatt Lecturer, Gandhi Memorial College, Srinagar, in Dec 2010 for setting a question paper for English literature students on whether ‘stone pelters were the real heroes’.
  • Sudhir Dhawale Dalit rights activist and freelance journalist, Wardha. Maharashtra police allege links with CPI (Maoist) in 2011.

Source: Sedition Laws and the Death of Free Speech in India

By Panini Anand and Debarshi Dasgupta

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