The slapping of sedition charges against writer and academic Hiren Gohain, Akhil Gogoi, leader of the Kisan Mukti Sangram Samiti, and senior journalist Manjit Mahanta on January 7, 2019, and the process of filing charge-sheet in the 2016 sedition case against Jawharlal Nehru University (JNU) students Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya, seven Kashmiri students, Aquib Hussain, Mujeeb Hussain, Muneeb Hussain, Umar Gul, Rayeea Rasool, Bashir Bhat and 38 unknown others, once again illustrate the character of the law on sedition as a potent weapon in the hands of ruling dispensations.
While the figures of sedition cases for 2017 onwards are not available, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows a a spike in arrests for sedition between 2014 and 2016. In early 2014 only nine persons were either in custody pending trial or on bail. Between 2014 and 2016, 179 people were arrested and 112 sedition cases filed with only two of the cases resulting in conviction.
Gohain and the two others have been booked for sedition for their role in a meeting opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. The reasons given being that they discussed “swadheenta” and allegedly slogans of “murdabad” were raised against the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister at the meeting.
In the JNU case, as is well known, the accused were booked for organizing an event in the University at which death penalty to Afzal Guru was criticized, and allegedly slogans of “azaadi” raised. In both cases the events have been construed as a threat to the integrity of India and attempts to provoke disaffection against the government.
The FIR against Gohain, Mahanta and Gogoi acknowledges the democratic nature of the meeting, and yet the charge of sedition is applied. It reads “the meeting was held democratically but these people threatened the sovereignty of the country and so I urge to take action against these people”. The video evidence in the JNU case did not show incitement to violence, and images were also morphed.
Intended to curb people’s aspirations and anti-government protests in colonial India, the Sections on sedition remain on the statute books in independent India because they serve the same anti-people purpose, the only change being the national, class, caste, and religious character of the rulers
The timing of the FIRs on the day before the Bill came up before the Lok Sabha, and the filing of the chargesheet four months before national elections reveal the political intent of the government to muzzle dissent. The cases once again prove the intrinsic nature of the sedition law as a political weapon in that it allows for criminalizing expressions of dissent against the government.
Slogans about freedom, criticism of certain executive decisions and government policies are democratic expressions of diverse aspirations of people. The speeches of Gohain, Gogoi and Mahanta on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill are only one manifestation of mass opposition to the Bill, evident from continuing protests in the North East, not just Assam.
The apex court has been known to rule that harsh criticism of individual politicians, and government policies in itself is not sedition. Yet we have the Assam case where sections of speeches which are part of a larger opposition to a government policy have been taken out of context.
The SC had quashed sedition charges in Balwant Singh vs State of Punjab (1995) where the two accused were arrested for shouting pro-Khalistan and anti-India slogans. The court ruled that a few slogans could not possibly threaten public order or national sovereignity, but the JNU case has still been filed. Sedition cases have a history of collapsing because of the flimsy grounds on which they are filed. However, the consequences for the accused can be far reaching. After the filing of the sedition charges, Umar Khalid was rusticated by the University and he was not allowed to submit his PhD thesis.
The wide latitude offered for interpretation in wording of the law on sedition evident in the contradictions between various judicial pronouncements and the arbitrary use by police offer a history of the section as a potent political weapon in the hands of ruling dispensations to attack dissent and dissenters, while curtailing democratic rights.
The issue is not the abuse of the law on sedition but the very purpose behind the Section. Intended to curb people’s aspirations and anti-government protests in colonial India, the Sections on sedition remain on the statute books in independent India because they serve the same anti-people purpose, the only change being the national, class, caste, and religious character of the rulers.
People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) demands abolition of the section on sedition and quashing of FIRs in the JNU and Gawahati cases.