Amnesty row sparks debate on use and abuse of sedition law in India

 Amnesty International India’s offices are temporarily closed and the group faces sedition charges after an event it organized in Bengaluru city to discuss alleged rights abuses by Indian forces in restive Kashmir saw some of the participants raising anti-India slogans calling for the region’s independence. While the group says the sedition charges against them are based on a colonial-era rule created by British to suppress India’s calls for independence, others say the organizers can’t escape the responsibility by saying none of its employees shouted slogans. But a 1995 Supreme Court ruling clearly mentions that disaffection toward the government, however strongly worded, does not constitute sedition unless there is incitement to violence.

 Police in the southern Indian city of Bangalore have slapped sedition charges on Amnesty International India, following a complaint by a right-wing students’ group that anti-India slogans were raised at a meeting organized by the global human rights advocacy group.

ABVP's anti-Amnesty protest in Delhi

Activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a right-wing students’ group, shout slogans during a protest against Amnesty International India in New Delhi.

“We have booked a case of sedition and rioting under various sections of the Indian Penal Code against Amnesty,” City Deputy Police Commissioner TR Suresh told India Abroad News Service on Tuesday.

The charges relate to a meeting on Kashmir that Amnesty organized in Bangalore on August 13 where Kashmiri participants spoke of their experiences of forced disappearances and other rights violations by the Indian security forces. A heated argument reportedly broke out between those who supported the security forces’ action and those who did not, when some of the latter raised slogans calling for azaadi (freedom).

The charges against Amnesty include sedition, rioting, unlawful assembly and promoting enmity.  The group has denied these allegations but admitted that pro-independence slogans were raised at the meeting although not by its employees. It has also correctly defended its right to provide a forum for people whose constitutional rights were violated by the state.

Sedition is dealt with in Section 124(a) of the Indian Penal Code.

“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 India” shall be punished with jail terms ranging from three years to life imprisonment, it says.

According to former Supreme Court Justice, Santosh Hegde, “raising pro-independence slogans amounts to sedition.”

amnesty

However, in a landmark judgement in the Kedarnath Singh vs State of Bihar case of 1962, the Supreme Court clarified that disaffection, however strongly worded, does not constitute sedition unless there is incitement to violence. Subsequently, in 1995, the apex court drew a clear distinction between “advocacy” and “incitement” and clarified that only incitement could be punished.

Thus, even if participants at the Amnesty meeting did raise anti-India slogans, this does not amount to sedition as they did not incite violence. The sedition charges are, therefore, unlikely to stick.

Introduced by the British colonial government to deal with Indians who challenged their rule, the sedition law was retained by independent India. Successive governments have used it as a weapon to stifle dissent and silence critics.

Thousands of Indians have been slapped with sedition charges. These include rights activist and doctor Binayak Sen for acting as an intermediary for the Maoists, author Arundhati Roy for questioning India’s claim over Kashmir, cartoonist Assem Trivedi for his cartoons against government corruption, and 60 Kashmiri students for cheering the Pakistani team in a cricket match against India, student leader Kanhaiya Kumar for allegedly raising “anti-national slogans,” and folk singer Kovan for criticizing the government’s liquor policy.

In 2011, 8,000 cases of sedition were filed in a single police station in Tamil Nadu state against villagers opposing the Kudankulam nuclear power plant.

They are in illustrious company. Mahatma Gandhi was slapped with sedition charges too.

Although sedition charges have rarely culminated in conviction, Section 124(a) is a handy weapon in the hands of the government as it can be used to harass and intimidate citizens who raise uncomfortable questions. Since sedition is a non-bailable and cognizable offence, a person facing charges can be arrested without warrant and could find himself behind bars for some weeks at least. Additionally, its use has a “chilling effect” on the larger community.

Critics of the sedition law argue that it should not exist in a democracy as it is anti-democratic. It violates the right to freedom of speech and expression that the Indian Constitution’s Article 19 (1) (a) guarantees every Indian. Additionally, it criminalizes dissent, which is the very essence of a democracy.

There are calls for doing away with the sedition law as have other democracies.

However, the sedition law has many champions too. They believe it is necessary to ensure the territorial integrity of the country.

Indeed some are of the view that it is necessary for India’s survival as a democracy. Earlier this year, Hegde had argued that “restrictions” are needed to “prevent people from abusing the country.” The sedition law is needed for democracy to survive, he said.

Others have said that the sedition law is needed to make patriots out of people and to deter ‘traitors’ from spreading their diabolic ideas.

But as Gandhi observed during his trial for sedition in 1922, “Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by the law. If one has no affection for a person, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence.”

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at sudha.ramachandran@live.in

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