BJP intends to use sedition law to silence dissent ahead of elections: Congress

Singhvi He said that a message of colonial mindset has been given that there will be a distance between the ruler and the ruled and through this law; the foundations of the republic will be uprooted

 Abhishek Manu Singhvi (Photo: IANS)
Abhishek Manu Singhvi (Photo: IANS)

Ashlin Mathew

Slamming the Union government for recommending not only the retention of IPC's Section 124A (sedition), but also harsher punishment, the Congress on Friday said the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) intends to use the sedition law as a tool for subversing, subjugating and silencing dissent just ahead of the 2024 General Elections.

Addressing a press conference at the party headquarters in New Delhi, senior Supreme Court lawyer and Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said, “It would be comic were it not tragic for the nation. In a terrible, tragic, and treacherous development, the Law Commission has recommended that Section 124A of the IPC should not only be retained, but also made harsher.”

 "The BJP intends to use the law of sedition as a tool of subversing, subjugating, and silencing dissent. The BJP government now plans to become more draconian, drastic, and deadly than the colonial regime," alleged Singhvi. He said a message of colonial mindset has been given that there will be a distance between the ruler and the ruled and through this law; the foundations of the republic will be uprooted.

"A message has been given ahead of the general election that we will use this in a one-sided manner particularly against opposition leaders," said Singhvi. He wondered if it was to create a fear psychosis ahead of the state and General Elections.

The Law Commission report, which was released on Friday, recommends that the Section 124A of IPC, which defines sedition, should be retained to safeguard the unity and integrity of the country as many threats to India’s internal security exists and wants the sentence to be extended to seven years.

The Commission, which is headed by the former Karnataka High Court Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, recommended, "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 lndia, with a tendency to incite violence or cause public disorder shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to seven years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”

The report explained that the term “disaffection” would include disloyalty and all feelings of enmity and the expression “tendency” would mean “mere inclination to incite violence or cause public disorder rather than proof of actual violence or imminent threat to violence”.

"The Law Commission report ignores the spirit of the Supreme Court proceedings in May and October last year which had rendered the entire offense of sedition in the country inoperative and clearly intended it to be repealed," said Singhvi, who is also a Rajya Sabha MP.

The Law Commission report underscores that by just stating that sedition was a colonial legacy was not valid grounds for its removal. “Merely ascribing the term 'colonial' to a law or institution does not by itself ascribe to it an idea of anachronism. What Section 124A of IPC seeks to penalise is only the pernicious tendency to incite violence or cause public disorder in the guise of exercising right to freedom of speech and expression,” reads the latest report.

Criticising the BJP, Singhvi said: "There has been a massive rise in sedition cases since 2014 with an annual rise of 28 per cent in sedition cases for the period between 2014 and 2020, compared to the yearly average between 2010 and 2014. There were 559 sedition cases filed between 2014 and 2020."

He pointed out that 12 sedition cases were filed during the pandemic against those who raised issues about lack of ventilators, food distribution or handling of the issue of migrant labourers.

"In total, 21 sedition cases were filed against journalists. Since 2018, they have been arrested for reportage on the farm laws, Covid-19, the Hathras gang rape, citizenship and for being critical of the government," he said, adding that 27 sedition cases were filed against those who protested against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 and the National Register for Citizens, while eight cases were filed against farmers protesting the now revoked farm laws.

In Uttar Pradesh, 60 per cent of the bail applications in trial courts were rejected and they all involved cases of protest, religious hate or insults to national symbols.

Citing more examples of the sedition cases, the Congress said that they were filed across three BJP-ruled states against party MP Shashi Tharoor and several senior journalists, including Zafar Agha of the National Herald, Mrinal Pande, Rajdeep Sardesai of the India Today, Vinod K Jose of The Caravan. Those named in the Elgar Parishad case have also been booked under this law, he pointed out.

Singhvi questioned why the government did not have the courage to do away with the sedition law despite the top court rendering it inoperative and making strong observations in that regard. “Why have the cases of sedition burgeoned during the BJP regime? Is the government misusing it as a tool to curb criticism? Is this an initial step towards more stringent curbing of dissent ahead of the upcoming general elections?” asked Singhvi.

He wondered why have the cases of sedition were imposed only on the Opposition leaders and dissidents, and how many BJP leaders have been charged under the law. "Was the reference to the Law Commission by the Government of India merely a circuitous, circumvention of the true spirit of the Supreme Court observations and intended to legitimise and provide added legal cover to the pernicious concept of sedition?" he said.

Singhvi reiterated that the BJP government had obliquely declared its intent in continuing to be selective and partisan in the misuse of this law against political dissent. He also asked why the government has not changed its "control freak" style and not been able to shed its colonial mindset.

“It is hypocritical to swear against the colonial mindset and doing exactly that. The BJP now plans to become more draconian, drastic and deadly by misuse of a colonial era law,” asserted Singhvi.

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