Sedition law has become a handy tool to silence dissent

By Abdul Bari Masoud

The country has witnessed dramatic jump in charging a person with the offence of sedition since the advent of BJP-led governments at the Centre and in several States. The ruling party has allegedly weaponised this colonial era law as a handy tool against political rivals, Muslims, Dalits and weaker sections to suppress and browbeat them.

Even the Supreme Court has raised serious concern over “rampant misuse” of the sedition law during the hearing of a constitutional challenge to it in July. The Court asked the Union Government as to why it was not repealing the provision used by the British to “silence” people like Mahatma Gandhi to suppress the freedom movement.

The latest data published by Article 14 shows growing instances of its misuse on frivolous and false grounds. As per it, as many as 25 sedition cases were filed after the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, 22 after the Hathras gang rape, and 27 after the Pulwama incident. In all, 96 per cent of the sedition cases filed against 405 Indians over the last decade were registered after 2014 and only six were convicted.

The Home Ministry data says a total of 326 cases were registered under the sedition law between 2014 and 2019, with the highest 54 cases in Assam. It further adds that 2019 saw the highest number of 93 sedition cases registered in the country, followed by 70 in 2018, 51 in 2017, 47 in 2014, 35 in 2016 and 30 in 2015.

Further, the data provided by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) indicates that sedition cases have risen from 47 in 2014 to 93 in 2019, a massive 163 per cent jump. However, the conversion rate from cases to conviction is a mere 3 per cent.

This shows that the police and related state authorities are using the sedition law indiscriminately to create fear among the citizens and silence any criticism or dissent against the regime.

Mere uttering some ‘harsh’ words against an incumbent chief minister by not an ordinary citizen but by a former governor has been also slapped with sedition charges. The case in point is of 81 years old Aziz Qureshi, former governor of Uttar Pradesh and two other states. The Allahabad High Court stayed his arrest till October 6.

According to the FIR lodged against him, Qureshi called the BJP government in the state a “blood-sucking demon”. He made the comment outside Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan’s house after visiting the latter’s residence to meet with him and his wife Tazeen Fatima. An FIR was lodged against him at the Civil Lines Police Station in Rampur on a complaint by BJP leader Akash Kumar Saxena. The latter claimed that Qureshi’s words were divisive and could cause unrest between two communities.

Here are some glaring examples of how this law is being abused.

1. Disha Ravi, a student, climate change activist and founder of Fridays for Future, was arrested by Delhi police on February 15, 2021

Case Details: She was picked up from her home in Bengaluru by Delhi police in a stealthy operation and remanded to five days judicial custody. She was charged with alleged involvement in an online toolkit on the farmers’ protest in India that the Swedish climate change youth activist Greta Thunberg had tweeted, which got international attention. Police said that the toolkit, a communication document for activists, would foment unrest and was seditious. They claimed she worked with pro-Khalistan activists.

Case Status: Ravi was released on bail after five days in judicial custody.

2. Village Pradhan Mohammad Aslam Khan and four associates

Case Details: Aslam Khan, newly-elected Pradhan of Belauta village, Sitapur district, UP and his four associates were arrested on May 8 for allegedly praising Pakistan and raising anti-India slogans. On May 13 sedition charges were slapped against them. Sitapur Police claims that a preliminary probe of video /audio footage of Khan shows “he was clearly heard raising pro-Pakistan slogans and sedition charges were added to the FIR on the basis of solid evidence”.

The Pradhan’s elder brother said a rival candidate had “planted” youngsters in the crowd, who raised pro-Pakistan slogans. “He videographed the procession and used the footage to frame my brother,” he said.

Case Status: All are in judicial custody.

3. Rajina Parbin Sultana

May 15, 2021: Rajina Parbin (Razia Parveen) Sultana along with Rafikul Hussain, Mehjabin Hasin, Jahidul Islam, Hasan Mustafijur Rahman and Rasedul Hoque were arrested on charges of sedition in Assam for allegedly dishonouring the National Flag.

Case Details: On May 14, 2021, they had a lunch party on the occasion of Eid at Tengnamari village of Abhayapuri town.

Next day, a picture showing them dining went viral because the table cloth resembled the Indian national flag. After a Bongaigaon-based unit of the Bajrang Dal informed the police, an FIR was filed on May 15, 2021.

Case Status: On June 5, Sultana secured bail, following an order of the Guwahati High Court.

4. Aisha Sultana

June 10, 2021: The Lakshadweep police registered a sedition case against actor, filmmaker and film activist Aisha Sultana for commenting that the Centre has used the Union Territory’s administrator Praful K Patel as a “bio-weapon” on the people of Lakshadweep Islands.

Case Details: BJP’s Lakshadweep unit president C Abdul Khader Haji filed a case against Sultana under Section 124 A of IPC (sedition) and 153 B (hate speech) at the Kavaratti police station. The complaint says Sultana had participated in a panel discussion on the issues in a Malayalam news channel, blaming Patel’s decisions for the rise of coronavirus cases on the island and stated that the Centre had used it as a “bio-weapon”.

Case Status: Sultana was granted interim anticipatory bail by the Kerala High Court.

5. Sharjeel Imam

Jan 28, 2020: Sharjeel Imam, PhD student in JNU; arrested (surrendered to Delhi police)

Case Details: He was an activist in the movement against CAA and was charged with sedition by Assam, UP, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Delhi for allegedly delivering two speeches on December 13, 2019 and January 16, 2020. In one speech, a video of which went viral, he was heard calling for Assam to be ‘cut off’ from the rest of India by having a ‘chakka jam’ at the chicken’s neck at the Siliguri corridor.

Case Status: Arrested, charge-sheet filed, trial yet to commence.

6. Farida Begum, Bidar

Jan 30, 2020: Farida Begum, headmistress of a school and Najibunissa, mother of a student of the school, were arrested on charges of sedition.

Case Details: On the Annual Day celebrations of Shaheen Primary and High School, Bidar, students of a school staged a play based on the CAA. The students who enacted the play were aged nine to 12 years. A video of the play with hilarious dialogues between a grandmother and a grandchild about documents to prove citizenship went viral. In one exchange, the grandchild tells the grandmother that Prime Minister Modi was asking for the documents and the grandmother responded to say she would beat anyone who asked for documents with her chappals. This exchange resulted in a complaint filed by an ABVP activist Neelesh Rakshayal and the headmistress and the parent of the student who mouthed these dialogues were arrested.

Case Status: Farida Begum and Najibunissa were released on bail on February 14, following an order by Bidar District Judge Managoli Premavathi, who said: “The drama shows that the children have condemned enforcement of laws. There is no other community named in the drama and all they have stated is that Muslims will have to leave the country.” While they were in jail, Bidar police questioned 85 students (aged between 9-12) for more than five hours a day to find out who wrote the dialogues of the play and coached them.

6: Kris Chudawala

Feb 1, 2020: He is a TISS student, charged with sedition along with 50 others

Brief Details: Azad Maidan police in Mumbai charged around 50 persons including Chudawala for raising slogans in favour of Sharjeel Imam in a Mumbai Pride solidarity meeting, organised by Queer Azadi Mumbai (QAM) and Humsafar Trust. He was associated with TISS Queer Collective. The meeting was held because Mumbai Police had denied permission for the annual Mumbai Pride march at the August Kranti Maidan – reportedly on the grounds that the rally would also address issues surrounding the government, the CAA and NRC.

Case Status: He was granted anticipatory bail on Feb 11, 2020 by the Bombay High Court.

7. Journalist Vinod Dua

Case Details: On May 6, 2020, an FIR was lodged against journalist Vinod Dua for alleged offences of sedition, public nuisance, printing defamatory materials and public mischief by BJP leader Shyam at Kumarsain police station in Shimla district, Himachal Pradesh. The complaint said that Dua made comments on the government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic and levelled allegations against the Prime Minister in his YouTube show.

Case Status: On June 3, 2021, Justices UU Lalit and Vineet Saran of the Supreme Court quashed the sedition case against him. The court also said: “Every journalist is entitled to protection under the Kedar Nath Singh judgment” – the 1962 case which effectively read down Sec. 124-A of the Indian Penal Code.

8. Journalist Siddique Kappan and three others

Case Details: On October 5, 2020: An FIR was lodged against journalist Siddique Kappan for offences under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and Sedition, after he was arrested in October 2020 while en route to Hathras, Uttar Pradesh to report on a crime (Hathras rape case). He has been under detention since then.

Case Status: A chargesheet was filed on April 2, 2021. The others named in the chargesheet are Atiqur Rahman, Mohammad Danish, Alam, Masood Ahmad, Feroz Khan and Asad Badruddin. They have been accused of receiving funds to the tune of Rs 80 lakh from financial institutions based in Muscat and Doha for the purpose of creating unrest and riots in Uttar Pradesh.

9. Dr. Zafarul Islam Khan

Case Details: On May 2, 2020, Delhi police registered a case of sedition against Dr. Zafarul Islam Khan, then chairman of the Delhi Minority Commission, under Indian Penal Code sections 124 A (sedition) and 153 A. Dr Khan, 72 years old, allegedly made comments on social media that were provocative, police said. In a Facebook post on April 28, Dr Khan commented about “the growing tide of Islamophobia in India” and urged the central government to take urgent steps to curb it.

Case Status: Dr Khan approached the Delhi High Court for anticipatory bail and secured protection from arrest on May 12. On July 31, 2020, he was granted anticipatory bail.

One can also notice a pattern in most of the cases. A worker from the ruling party first lodges a complaint, then the police swing into action.

Speaking with Radiance, Dr Khan sheds light on his case. “I think my tweet on 28 April 2020 thanking the Government of Kuwait for taking interest in the affairs of the Indian Muslims did not deserve all that attention, but since a political lobby was peeved at my actions as the head of the Delhi Minorities Commission and was waiting for an opportunity to pounce on me and deny me another term which was a foregone conclusion before that controversy. The tweet gave them the handle they were waiting for,” he said.

With hindsight, he said that the tweet was unnecessary and thoughtless as he momentarily forgot that he was also head of a statutory body.

“Only two days after this tweet, I said it was ill-timed and insensitive. But the powers that be were adamant to punish me and a very high level intervention ensured that a complaint against me be forwarded to the dreaded Special Cell of the Delhi Police which looks after serious cases like terror and narcotics. They tried to arrest me on 2 May 2020 but failed.”

Soon thereafter he obtained an anticipatory bail order from the Delhi High Court which will continue until Police files a chargesheet which they have failed to do even 17 months after all that fuss and media trial.

Advocate Sadique Qureshi, who painstakingly collected all the sedition cases across the country, told Radiance that though laws like sedition date back to the British period and successive governments after Independence added much more to the list of draconian laws, the nation has witnessed their most rampant and selective misuse during past seven years under the BJP rule.

Qureshi, coordinator, Movement Against UAPA and Other Repressive Laws (MURL), further underlines that these laws are being used as tools by the Government to suppress all types of dissent against its fallible policies and actions.

Dr Khan says it was a clear misuse of the sedition law which must be deleted from the statute book as it is only misused by successive governments to suppress their critics and supposed enemies. And he added: “I believe that all such black laws like NSA, UAPA must go because they are only misused by the authorities.”

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