If all you have is a hammer, the saying goes, everything begins to look like a nail. Nowhere is this analogy more apt than in the draconian laws the government is using to quell dissent. Chief among these laws is Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, designed to clamp down on sedition. Under the law, 'signs, visible representations, or words, spoken or written, that can cause hatred or contempt, or excite or attempt to excite disaffection towards the government', amount to sedition.
Section 124A is amongst the harshest laws in the government's toolkit. It is part of a troika of so-called 'offences against the state', drafted to protect it from treason, sedition and rebellion. It was forged by India's erstwhile colonial masters as a weapon of last resort and liberally used to jail India's freedom-fighters. In recent years, this law, either on its own or in conjunction with others, has become an instrument of the first resort used by a paranoid state to stifle dissent. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967; National Security Act (NSA), 1980; Jammu & Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA), 1978; and Prevention of Money-Laundering Act (PMLA), 2002, are all being liberally misused for what they provide to the government—the right to detain without trial.
There has been a spurt in the number of sedition cases the state has filed against individuals in recent years—from 35 in 2016 to 93 in 2019. Sedition charges were brought against the leaders of the Patidar agitation in 2015, the Jat unrest in 2017, protesters against Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh's conviction in 2017, the Adivasis in Jharkhand's Pathalgadi movement in 2018 and those opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. State governments have invoked the sedition law on specious grounds—charging a 53-year-old man who made a video alleging that the Chhattisgarh government was in league with inverter makers, a girl in Bengaluru who shouted a pro-Pakistan slogan at a political rally or the headmistress of a Karnataka school which staged an anti-CAA-NRC play. The most recent instance of what seems to be the misuse of this law was the February 14 arrest of 21-year-old Bengaluru-based climate activist Disha Ravi in the so-called "toolkit" case. The Delhi police accused Ravi and two other individuals of collaborating with a pro-Khalistan group-Poetic Justice Foundation-and sought to link them with the January 26 violence during a farmers' rally in Delhi. While granting bail, the Additional Sessions Judge, Dharmender Rana, said: "The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of governments."
This has been the fate of most sedition-related cases. While the number of cases has surged, the rate of convictions has dropped sharply from 33.3 per cent to just 3.3 per cent between 2016 and 2019. Most cases, it would seem, are filed without a valid basis, either for reasons of legal illiteracy or through deliberate misuse. Since sedition is a cognisable, non-bailable offence, a person can be arrested without a warrant. Punishment includes imprisonment ranging from three years to a lifetime, a fine or both. Further, a person charged under Section 124A is barred from a government job and must surrender his or her passport. Considering the low conviction rate in reality, the process is the punishment.
All governments in the past have been guilty of using draconian laws to silence inconvenient critics. Surprisingly, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) started publishing data on sedition cases only after 2014. The Supreme Court has delivered two landmark verdicts on the subject of sedition: Kedar Nath Singh vs. the State of Bihar in 1962 and Balwant Singh vs. the State of Punjab in 1995. In the first, although the apex court held the view that criticism of the government or its measures is outside the ambit of sedition, it also said that the tendency to incite violence is sedition. Now tendency is a loose term and can be interpreted in many ways by smart lawyers. In the Balwant Singh case, the court acquitted all those accused of sedition for chanting pro-Khalistan slogans following Indira Gandhi's assassination. The ambiguity leaves some scope for misuse. Clearly, merely criticising politicians and the government or shouting slogans should not get you into serious trouble, as has been the case recently.
Unarguably, the nation's security and integrity are paramount and require laws to protect them. Since there are so many laws to do this, perhaps it is time to amend Section 124A of the IPC, which deals with sedition, and make it more in tune with our democracy.
Our cover story, 'Who is an Enemy of the State?', written by Deputy Editor Kaushik Deka, explores the growing and worrying trend of the state cracking down on dissent. Criticism, dissent and public protests are the hallmarks of any vibrant democracy. India is justifiably proud of its democratic credentials. We are a strong and confident nation that has enjoyed the freedom to elect our governments and the freedom of expression for over seven decades. This should not be sullied by any unjust action taken by the state. After all, citizens need to be protected as much as the state.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for the cover story, Who is an Enemy of the State?, for March 8, 2021)