Sedition, dissent and the rights of accused

The law of sedition was introduced in India by the British.

February 20, 2021 by Indian Cultural Forum

On Saturday, February 13, 21-year-old Disha Ravi was arrested on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy for her involvement with a ‘toolkit’ which contained campaign material in support of the the ongoing farmers’ agitation in the country. Two other activists also face arrest.

Climate activist Disha Ravi’s arrest by the Delhi Police has brought India’s sedition law into discussion again. It is not simply her arrest under the colonial-era law that has been questioned, but also the failure of Delhi Police to follow due process while making the arrest. Senior lawyers, politicians, and a former Supreme Court judge have raised their voices highlighting the arbitrary nature of the arrest.

Disha has been targeted by the Delhi Police for sharing a “Toolkit”, a document suggesting different ways in which one can support the ongoing farmers protests taking place at the national capital. Nikita Jacob and Shantanu Mukul are two other activists apprehending arrests in connection with the “Toolkit Case.”

Sedition punishes bringing or the attempt to bring hatred, contempt or disaffection against the government established by law. It can lead to punishment by imprisonment which can extend to imprisonment for life. In addition to this, the offense is non-bailable and cognizable, which means the accused has to undergo a longer process to obtain bail.

Meanwhile, The Indian Express reported that a Delhi court has summoned all the accused in JNU sedition case on March 15, as the trial is to begin. The link between the JNU sedition case is not merely through section 124 A (sedition) and the targeting of students. From February 2016, when an event was organized by students in JNU to mark the hanging of Afzal Guru, the number of sedition cases have been on the rise. Ever since then sedition has become the most important tool in the hands of the government to target any voices of dissent. Students, activists, journalists, artists and people protesting against any government laws and policies are often the target.

Recent data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reveals that from 2016 to 2019, sedition cases in India have increased by 165 %. In 2016 alone, 35 cases were filed under sedition, and in 2019, the number went up to 93. The NRCB, however, has started collecting data on sedition only since 2014. A database on sedition cases between January 1, 2010 to December 31, 2020, managed by Article 14, states that out 11,000 individuals implicated under sedition during this time period, 65 % were implicated after 2014, when the Modi government came to power. It also states that there is an increase of 28% in the number of sedition cases filed each year between 2014 to 2020, compared to the yearly average between 2010 to 2014.

The database also attributes the increase to major surge in sedition cases after protest movements such as those against the CAA, or the recent Hathras incident.

Process as punishment 

The Supreme Court has restricted the scope of this section. Mere criticism of the government or its policies, criticizing politicians, raising slogans and the like do not amount to sedition. For the offense of sedition, there has to be incitement to violence or an attempt to incite violence. Very few cases under the section fall under this category and the conviction rate is very low. However, the accused under this section, which is non-bailable, has to undergo a longer process for bail and the process itself is punishment. Disha Ravi’s case is a classic example of this.

Disha was arrested by the Delhi Police from her home in Bangalore and produced before the Magistrate Court in Delhi, without giving her any access to her lawyers. The actions of the Delhi Police have violated her rights under Article 22, which requires her production before the nearest Magistrate in Bangalore. The rationale behind the production of an accused before the nearest Magistrate within 24 hours is to ensure that the arrest has been made in accordance with the law of the land.

The Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Judicial Reforms (CJAR) has issued a statement condemning the arbitrary arrest and abdication of duty by the Magistrate, which states that “such illegal actions by Delhi Police would amount to a kidnapping under the pretense of law.”

Irrespective of what the court decides on her trial, Disha has ended up spending days in police custody. Not only her rights as an accused under Article 22 have been violated but also her fundamental rights under other provisions of the Indian Constitution.

Repeal of sedition?

The law of sedition was introduced in India by the British. In 2009, however, this law was repealed in the UK. On the contrary, in India it is not just used widely but also figures in election campaigns. In 2019, Prime Minister Modi mocked the Congress for promising repeal of the law as a part of their election manifesto and the BJP leaders kept promising amendment of the law to make it more stringent in run-up to the 2019 elections. Similarly, during the Delhi elections last year the BJP also promised to give the sanction for prosecution of JNU sedition case, if it gets elected in Delhi.

This reflects the reliance of BJP government on sedition to suppress dissent and harass citizens, as well as to get votes.