India has a long history of successive governments using the sedition law as a tool to silence dissent. One of the earliest examples is from 1954, when the Congress government used it to try and rein in one Ramnandan, who had taken on the government over its inability to address the continuing poverty in the country. He got relief from the Allahabad High Court, which struck down Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as unconstitutional. The Punjab High Court made a similar ruling in 1950. In 1962, Kedar Nath, a member of the Forward Communist Party in Bihar, was not that fortunate when he accused the Congress of corruption, black marketeering and tyranny in an intemperate speech. His conviction and sentence were upheld by the Supreme Court. It heard his challenge to the constitutionality of Section 124A along with that of some Muslims and communists who had also been convicted of sedition. The court overruled the verdicts of the two High Courts and upheld the constitutionality of Section 124A even though it restricted application of the Section to cases where the accused incites violence and thereby threatens public order. But the restriction did not deter governments from using the law with impunity.
Worse, the offence of sedition was made cognisable in 1973 with the enactment of the Code of Criminal Procedure. A cognisable offence is one in which a police officer may arrest the accused and investigate the case without a warrant or direction from a magistrate. This vital change made the application of the sedition law in independent India look harsher than it was during the British Raj, when a person accused of sedition could not be arrested by a police officer without a warrant from a magistrate. It is significant that the government of the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, brought about this change two years before imposing the Emergency. There is no documentation of the use of sedition against political opponents in this period.
However, in the current regime headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the attack on dissenting voices is sharper. Data from National Crime Records Bureau show that the number of people in custody pending trial or out on bail in sedition cases significantly increased to 58 in 2014 from nine in 2013.
The following are some of the stories that made the headlines over a period. They show how the law is being used against even mild expressions of dissent, clearly with the aim of threatening and intimidating dissenters so that it has a chilling effect on others who may be similarly inclined to exercise their right to freedom of expression to the fullest extent.
On January 10, the Assamese intellectual and Sahitya Akademi award winner Hiren Gohain; Akhil Gogoi, the leader of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti; and the journalist Manjit Mahanta were booked for sedition. A case under Section 124A and also Sections 121 and 123 of the IPC (for other offences against the state) was filed against them for criticising the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, at a rally on January 7. On January 11, the Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha. The action against Gohain evoked shock and dismay, much of it directed at the BJP government at the Centre. The Gauhati High Court granted interim bail to Gohain and Gogoi and absolute bail to Mahanta.
In August 2018, the Chennai Police charged the activist Thirumurugan Gandhi with sedition for uploading a Facebook video in which he criticised the influence enjoyed by corporates in India. The police alleged that the video instigated people to mutiny. Also booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, he was kept in solitary confinement in Vellore prison.
Manipur journalist’s ‘offence’
The Manipuri journalist Kishore Chandra Wangkhem , 39, shot to fame with his Facebook video dated November 19, 2018, in which he criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Manipur Chief Minister Nongthombam Biren Singh. He lashed out at the Chief Minister for organising an event commemorating Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi. He said that the warrior queen who fought the British was not relevant to the history or culture of Manipur and that such an event only demonstrated that Biren Singh and Modi were trying to propagate the idea of Hindutva. He described Biren Singh as a puppet of Modi, whom he called a chaiwallah (tea vendor).
On November 21, 2018, he was booked for sedition and arrested. While hearing the case, the Chief Judicial Magistrate of the Imphal West Court found that the offence did not amount to sedition and released him. The CJM noted: “The government, especially its functionary like the Prime Minister or Chief Minister, cannot be so sensitive as to take offence upon expression of opinion by its citizen which may be given very nicely by using proper words or indecently by using some vulgar terms.”
On November 27, Wangkhem was booked under the National Security Act (NSA) and detained again. Since then, he has been under detention at the Central Jail, Manipur. His wife, Ranjita Elangbam, has requested the State government to review the order that led to his arrest.
In May 2018, the Chhattisgarh Police charged the Bastar-based journalist Kamal Shukla with sedition for sharing a cartoon on Facebook that allegedly made derogatory references to the judiciary and the government following the Supreme Court’s decision to reject petitions calling for an impartial probe into the mysterious death in Nagpur in 2014 of the special judge Justice B.H. Loya. The judge had been entrusted with the trial of the BJP leader Amit Shah in the Sohrabuddin encounter case .
In September 2017, Akhil Gogoi was booked under the NSA for a speech he made. The Gauhati High Court stepped in and had him released two months later.
In June 2017, the police in Madhya Pradesh’s Burhanpur district filed a case of sedition (which they later replaced with one of disturbing communal harmony) against 15 Muslim residents of Mohad village for bursting firecrackers, chanting pro-Pakistan slogans and distributing sweets during and after the India-Pakistan Champions Trophy final. The accused were later sent to Khandwa jail.
Journalists as targets
I n 2006, Manoj Shinde was the editor of an eveninger in Surat, Gujarat. He blamed Modi, who was Chief Minister at the time, for the floods the city experienced in August of that year. He was charged with sedition for instigating people against a duly elected government. Kahturam Sunani, a journalist, was booked in Sinapali, Odisha, in 2007 for filing a report stating that Pahariya tribal people were consuming soft dolomite stones in Nuapada district because of acute hunger.
In 2008, sedition charges were filed by the Ahmedabad police against The Times of India resident editor Bharat Desai, the reporter Prashant Dayal and the photojournalist Gautam Mehta over articles published in the newspaper questioning the appointment of the city police chief who was allegedly linked to an erstwhile underworld don.
In 2008, the government of Odisha arrested Lenin Kumar, the editor of the quarterly magazine Nishan , for publishing a booklet on the Kandhamal riots entitled “ Dharmannare Khandamalre Raktonadhi ” (The rivers of blood in Kandhamal).
Kirori Singh Bainsla , a Gujjar community leader, was booked for sedition in June 2008 in Bayana, Rajasthan, for leading an agitation demanding Scheduled Tribe status for Gujjars.
Laxman Choudhury, a journalist, was booked in Gajapathi, Odisha, in 2009 for allegedly possessing Maoist literature, whereas he claimed that he was writing about the involvement of local police in illegal drug trafficking.
In 2010, theTamil Nadu Police arrested the environmentalist Piyush Sethia in Salem under charges of sedition for distributing pamphlets condemning state-sponsored violence in Chhattisgarh.
In 2010, the Karnataka Police filed sedition charges against E. Rati Rao in her capacity as editor of the Kannada magazine Varthpatra of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Karnataka, because the magazine had carried an article criticising the government for carrying out fake encounters and accusing it of being casteist and communal.
Noor Muhammed Bhat, a lecturer at the Gandhi Memorial College Srinagar, was arrested in 2010 because he added a question on the unrest in the Kashmir Valley in an examination paper he set. The question paper asked English literature students whether “stone pelters were the real heroes”.
In 2011, the Maharashtra police arrested Sudhir Dhawale on charges of sedition for being a member of and providing support to a terrorist organisation. In May 2014, after he had spent 40 months in prison, a special court acquitted him of all charges. Dhawale is well known for his work in getting justice for victims of caste atrocities in Maharashtra. Last June, he was again arrested, this time because he was one of the organisers of the Elgaar Parishad, an event held on December 31, 2017, on the eve of the 200th anniversary of a battle at Bhima-Koregaon, which led to violence.
The famous cartoonist Aseem Trivedi launched his “cartoons against corruption” campaign at the height of the anti-corruption movement in 2011. He displayed his cartoons at the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority grounds, Mumbai, where Anna Hazare was fasting at the time. Later, he anchored another campaign, “Save your voice”, to protest against Internet censorship in India. Only some time ago, Trivedi’s website (cartoonsagainstcorruption.blogspot.com) was banned by the Mumbai police’s Crime Branch for its alleged “defamatory and derogatory” content. Trivedi and his associates celebrated April Fools’ Day that year as Sibal’s day to mock the then Information Technology (IT) Minister Kapil Sibal for his attempts to muzzle freedom of expression. Trivedi also launched events such as “Freedom in the cage”, “Freedom Fast” and “Occupy India”, all critical of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance II government. Soon he was charged under Section 124A of the IPC and Section 66A of the IT Act (sending offensive messages through communication service) and the National Emblem Act.
He was arrested in September 2012 but was granted bail by the Bombay High Court the same month. The government dropped the charge of sedition against him in October 2012. In March 2015, the Supreme Court dropped the charges under Section 66A. Trivedi no longer faces any charges.
In 2013, Akbaruddin Owaisi , a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Telangana who belongs to the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), was booked for sedition, among other offences, for allegedly making inflammatory speeches. In July 2016, a sedition case was registered against Asaduddin Owaisi, Akbaruddin’s elder brother and AIMIM chief and Hyderabad MP, over his statement that he would provide legal aid to five city-based people who were arrested by the National Investigation Agency on charges of involvement in an alleged Islamic State terror module.
Simranjit Singh Mann , who heads the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) and is a staunch advocate of the Khalistan movement,was arrested from Sangrur district of Punjab in 2005 on sedition charges for raising pro-Khalistani slogans at the Golden Temple Complex on the 21st anniversary of Operation Blue Star. Mann, a former Indian Police Service officer who resigned in 1984 in protest against the massacre of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, was twice elected to the Lok Sabha, first in 1989 when he was in detention and later in 1999. On September 8, 2018, the additional district court in Fatehgarh Sahib acquitted Mann in the sedition case registered against him 13 years ago by the then Congress government in Punjab.
Hardik Patel , the Patidar community’s youth leader from Gujarat, was booked for allegedly insulting the national flag, and a sedition case was registered against him in October 2015 in Rajkot. The case was subsequently withdrawn by the Gujarat government and dropped by the Gujarat High Court in 2017. He was also arrested for allegedly inciting violence in the course of his agitation demanding reservation for Patels and was kept in detention for nine months. He was released in July 2016 by a sessions court in Viramgam, Gujarat. Subsequently, the High Court exiled him from Gujarat for a period of six months.
The Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy was booked by the Delhi Police in 2010 on charges of sedition, and other offences following a private complaint that she along with Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani and two others made an alleged anti-India speech at a seminar titled “Azadi: the only way” on October 21 that year in New Delhi. However, the case made no progress, and the accused were not arrested.
Divya Spandana alias Ramya is a south Indian film actor turned Congress politician in charge of the Congress’ social media wing. She was booked for sedition after she tweeted a photoshopped picture of the Prime Minister on September 24, 2018. The photograph shows Modi painting the word chor (thief) on the forehead of a wax statue of himself. Syed Rizwan Ahmed, a Lucknow-based lawyer, filed a case against her in the Gomti Nagar police station on September 25 after which the police charged her under Section 67 of the IT (Amendment) Act (for publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form) and 124A of the IPC. She was not arrested, but the case is pending for hearing.
The cricketer turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu , who is currently the Minister of Local Government, Tourism and Cultural Affairs, Archives and Museums in the Punjab government, was slapped with a sedition charge on August 20, 2018, for hugging Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa while he was in Pakistan to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Imran Khan. A lawyer, Sudhir Ojha, filed the case in Muzaffarpur’s Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court under various sections of the IPC, including Section 124A. Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh distanced himself from the controversy, saying that Sidhu had attended the ceremony in a personal capacity. The case is pending in a sessions court in Bihar.
There was a shocking case of sedition filed against Amnesty International India, a non-governmental organisation working in the area of human rights. In 2016, the Bengaluru Police filed a criminal case against it for organising an event as part of its campaign seeking justice for the victims of human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir.
The event dominated headlines as it facilitated discussions with the aggrieved family members of Kashmiris who had been featured in a report of Amnesty International India prepared in 2015. The first information report mentioned charges under various sections of the IPC: sedition (Section 124A), unlawful assembly (Section 144), rioting (Section 146) and promoting enmity (Section 153A). A trial court in Bengaluru heard the case on January 8, 2019. The court closed the case with the observation: “This was a case that should never have been registered. It has been a waste of public money and resources.”
The actor Aamir Khan, who is the recipient of two of India’s four highest civilian awards, the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan, was charged with sedition on November 25, 2015, by a sessions court in Kanpur on the grounds that one of his statements was intolerant. While speaking at the Ramnath Goenka award functions of the Indian Express group in New Delhi, Aamir Khan had been quoted as saying that his wife had suggested that he leave India in view of the growing intolerance in the country. The case is pending before the sessions court in Kanpur.
(With inputs from Tanveer Kaur and Rahul Gopinath.)