On February 12, at least 14 students of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and several ‘unidentified’ people were charged with sedition in Uttar Pradesh. Their crime: alleged assault on an English TV news channel crew. If that sounds bizarre, consider this. In the first week of this month, five people were sent to jail under the National Security Act (NSA) in two separate cases of cow slaughter and ‘cattle smuggling’ in Madhya Pradesh. The NSA for cow-related cases could, perhaps, have been understandable had the state continued to be under a BJP government. But there has been a change of guard in Madhya Pradesh and it is a Congress-led government which decided that killing and smuggling cows are crimes that “threaten the security” of India. Though state home minister Bala Bachchan defended the action, saying the suspects were repeat-offenders, senior Congress leaders were aghast at the use of a law fit only for terrorists. Former finance minister P. Chidambaram said the use of NSA by the MP government was “wrong”. The five men are now locked up in separate jails. The AMU case would not come as a surprise for many as Uttar Pradesh has a long list of cases filed for sedition or under provisions of the NSA, a fact acknowledged officially by the Yogi Adityanath government.
The Madhya Pradesh and UP cases are just symptoms of a bigger malaise sweeping through India—the indiscriminate use of harsh and archaic laws, mostly against people seen to be dissenting against the Centre and state governments. People protesting against a contentious bill have been charged with sedition in Assam, a journalist critical of a chief minister has been booked under the NSA in Manipur and left-leaning activists have been slapped with the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in Maharashtra. Activists and critics see a pattern in the crackdown, saying the use of such laws—which allow the government to jail people for long periods without trial—is meant to browbeat dissenters and political opponents into submission (‘Sshh! Government is Working’).
“Section 124A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.”
Mahatma Gandhi, March 18, 1922
“There is something that unites all of them (sedition law, NSA, UAPA). It is the inherent undemocratic tendency of these laws which somewhere restrict the fundamental freedoms that the Constitution guarantees to people,” says law expert Anushka Singh, an assistant professor at Ambedkar University, Delhi. “At one level, every law restricts the liberties of the people by laying down norms of conduct, but there is a justification for penal provision in a democracy; the justification could be anything related to law and order and personal security of citizens involved. But these laws are particularly prone to undemocratic tendencies of the state because of their vague nature and the overriding powers they give to the executive allowing for their arbitrary use,” adds Singh, who has written the book Sedition in Liberal Democracies.
Sedition—written into Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC)—has arguably emerged as the most abused law in recent times; it’s apparently the answer to all opponents and dissenting voices that the party in power wants to stifle. The law has come in handy at least in two states of the Northeast, where at least six people, including a Sahitya Akademi award winner, a journalist and an activist, have been charged with sedition since January. They were opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, which aims to ease the process of getting Indian citizenship for non-Muslims from three neighbouring countries.
One of those charged with sedition is Assam’s firebrand activist Akhil Gogoi, who was once part of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement. “We have been carrying out agitations since the time Hiteswar Saikia was the Congress chief minister in the early 1990s. We had also agitated against the 15-year Congress rule in Assam. I have even said former CM Tarun Gogoi should be thrown into the Brahmaputra. But I have never felt so threatened in my life…Any individual who believes in democracy feels threatened under the BJP rule,” says Gogoi, who has been charged along with journalist Manjit Mahanta and writer-intellectual Hiren Gohain (‘Any Criticism is Wormwood’). “I have been sent to jail at least 36 times, many a time during the Congress regime. but never charged with sedition,” Gogoi adds.
Former Assam Police director general Harekrishna Deka agrees that the charges against the three Assam activists are unwarranted. “Hiren Gohain (and the others) has said nothing provocative or threatening to the state or the government…By slapping sedition charges, the BJP government has shown its intolerance towards a democratic movement,” Deka says.
By Anupam Bordoloi with Preetha Nair and Salik Ahmed in Delhi, Abdul Gani in Guwahati, G.C. Shekhar in Chennai, Naseer Ganai in Srinagar and K.S. Shaini in Bhopal