Lucknow: When Feroz Ahmad was brought to the police station in Nautanwa, close to the Indo-Nepal border in the eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP) district of Maharajganj, about 20 activists of the Hindu Yuva Vahini were already there.
“They started chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ the moment they saw me,” Ahmad said.
An electrician with a small shop in Nautanwa market, Ahmad, then 36, was arrested on 9 November 2018 and charged with sedition. Police accused him of forwarding a WhatsApp message, which the men of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a right-wing organisation established and nurtured by UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, claimed had hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus.
“His intention is to incite communal riots in the country by hurting the religious sentiment of majority Hindus,” said the first information report (FIR), the starting point of a police investigation. “He wants to cause communal flare-up with the objective of destabilising the government and damaging the unity and integrity of the country.”
Ahmad remembered that the Hindu Yuva Vahini men had virtually dictated to the policeman sitting at a desk and writing the FIR the sections of Indian Penal Code, 1860, that were to be slapped on him.
Narasingh Pandey, district president of the organisation and the formal complainant in the case, was at the helm.
“I was scared as I saw Narasingh Pandey telling policemen what charges would be used against me,” Ahmad told Article 14. “I could clearly see matters slipping out of the hands of the policemen.”
Ahmad’s pleas that he was practically illiterate and could barely write his name, that he had neither posted such a message nor forwarded it cut no ice with the policemen. Two-and-a-half months later, the police dropped the sedition charge, clearing the way for his bail from a lower court, but the period he spent in jail wrecked his business and pushed his family to penury.
So devastating was the impact of his incarceration that two-and-a-half years after his release, Ahmad was still struggling to repay debts incurred by the family during his absence.
A senior police officer in Maharajganj who was acquainted with the case admitted that it was a mistake to apply section 124A (sedition) of the IPC in the case against Ahmad. “When the investigation was done and we realised that a mistake had been committed, the section was dropped immediately,” he told Article 14, speaking on condition of anonymity.
All the policemen who filed the case against Ahmad at Nautanwa police station were since transferred.
The Hindu Yuva Vahini’s Maharajganj district president Narasingh Pandey was unrepentant. He told Article 14 that his complaint was legitimate, and that he was driven not by any prejudice but solely by “nationalist instincts”.
“One of my duties as a leader of the Hindu Yuva Vahini is to file complaints with the police against those who speak or write against our gods and goddesses or our Maharaj-ji (the honorific commonly used to refer to Adityanath) or any other Hindu religious guru,” he said. This included those who posted these opinions on social media, he added.
Pandey said the complaint against Ahmad was not the only one of its kind in Maharajganj. The group had filed a dozen complaints in various parts of the district since Adityanath became chief minister, he said. The complainants in these cases were either Pandey himself, or other members of the group.
Across eight UP districts, Article 14 interviewed a total of 31 men accused of sedition and found that all non-state complainants were Hindutva activists or sympathisers.
As per the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, any individual can register a complaint with a police station in relation to a cognizable offence (where a police officer may make an arrest without a warrant), requesting a case be filed against a potential offender. The police have the discretion to convert the complaint into an FIR. In UP, the complainants’ nexus with the state was at the root of rampant illegal use of the sedition.
According to Article 14’s database that mines multiple media, legal and police sources to record all sedition cases filed between January 2010 and February 2021, UP, among the top five states with the highest number of sedition cases in the country, recorded during this period a 90% increase in incidents of police acting on complainants' demands for a sedition case to be filed.
Of the 41 cases filed under pressure from individuals, 37 were filed after 2017, when Adityanath took over as CM. These cases were based on complaints by members of Hindu nationalist groups and people affiliated with registered political parties.
This is the second of a two-part series on UP’s rising tide of sedition cases in recent years. This report investigates the use of the sedition charge as a political tool of Hindutva groups. The first part detailed the communal undertones in UP’s sedition cases against Muslims who were protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019.
The Sangh Parivar’s Sedition Complaints
Formed as an anti-minority outfit in the wake of Gujarat riots of 2002, the Hindu Yuva Vahini has functioned as a Hindu communalist militia, trying to create a fear of minorities—especially Muslims—among the Hindus of Gorakhpur, Maharajganj, Basti and some nearby districts of eastern UP.
Though not part of the original Sangh Parivar, the Hindutva outfits controlled by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu Yuva Vahini has worked in tandem with it after the BJP picked Adityanath to be chief minister of UP in 2017.
Since then, lodging complaints against people it perceives as anti-Hindu, as Narasingh Pandey explained, has been among its workers’ main engagements, alongside framing every argument and altercation between a Hindu and a Muslim in sectarian terms.
That alone, however, does not explain the spurt in sedition cases across the state in the wake of the formation of a BJP government in 2017. Adityanath’s organisation was limited to parts of eastern UP; in other parts of the state, complainants in sedition cases were mostly associated with one of the Sangh Parivar’s outfits.
Sedition cases were filed in August and September 2021 against Aziz Querishi, the former Governor of Uttar Pradesh and Shafiqur Rehman Barq, member of Parliament, Samajwadi Party. In both cases reportedly, the police acted on complaints by individuals. In one case, the complainant was a local BJP leader.
In Kanpur, the police went a step further and filed a sedition case without verifying the identity of the complainant. According to the 15 March 2020 FIR, the case was registered on the basis of a complaint received from “the Twitter handle Limited Edition @limited0190” which had tweeted that Abdul Hannan, a local advocate, had used a Hindi term that could be translated as “communal terrorist” to refer to “our yashasvi (glorious) chief minister”.
Hannan was taken into custody hours after the FIR was filed.
Hannan had only responded to a highly provocative tweet by Shalabh Mani Tripathi, the UP government’s chief adviser for electronic media. Tripathi’s tweet said: “Tum kaagaz nahin dikhaoge, tum dange bhi phailaoge, toh hum laathi bhi chalwaenge, gharbaar bhi bikwaenge, aur haan, poster bhi lagwaenge.” (If you do not identify yourself with documents and if you spark riots, we will wield batons, sell your homes, and, yes, we will paste posters too).
The tweet clearly targeted anti-CAA protesters who had given a call not to produce documents during the survey for the National Population Register. It referred to the protestors as rioters and justified the Lucknow administration’s controversial move to put up posters with the photographs, names and addresses of anti-CAA workers in the city.
Hannan, who offered free legal services to those who received property recovery notices for participating in anti-CAA protests, replied on Twitter: “Desh ka sabse bada sampradayak aatanki aaj purva padadhikariyon ko aatanki kah raha hai, jaisi karni, vaisi sochani.” (The country’s biggest communal terrorist is today calling former representatives terrorists, as you act, so you think).
The tweet made no direct reference to Adityanath, but that did not deter the anonymous complainant, nor did it stop the Kanpur police from registering an FIR and making an arrest. Hannan, who got bail three days later, told Article 14: “In its bail order the court said it was not clear from my tweet that it was directed against the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.”
Equally bizarre was the identity of the complainant. “Practically nothing specific is known about the complainant except that he called himself ‘Limited Edition’ and carried the image of an RSS shakha on his Twitter handle,” said Hannan.
Article 14 reported then that the station house officer of Kalyanpur police station Ajay Seth, who filed the FIR, admitted that he had not tried to find out the identity of the original complainant, the Twitter handle named ‘Limited Edition’.
The only indication of the aggrieved Twitter handle’s association was the image of the RSS logo used as its display image.
“Such is the fear of the RSS that the police didn’t even record the statement of the complainant,” said Hannan. “It is neither in the FIR nor in the chargesheet.”
In July 2021, we reported the surge in cases of sedition filed against social media users. Our database reveals that across India, 102 cases were filed against 152 people for creating audios, photos or videos or for sharing content on social media. And 55.9% of these were filed in Karnataka and UP.
In UP, 32 cases were filed, and 39 people charged with sedition for social media posts. In the aftermath of the Hathras gang rape and murder a sedition case was even filed against a website, justiceforhathrasvictim.carrd.co.
Sedition Charges To Shield The Image of Modi, Adityanath
In Chitrakoot, a district on the state’s southern border with Madhya Pradesh, Meera Bharati, 30, and Mohit Patel, 23, were arrested for sedition on 2 October 2020, a day after an FIR was registered on the complaint of a local BJP leader identified in the complaint as “Pankaj Tiwari, booth president of the BJP”.
Bharati, a lawyer by training and belonging to a Scheduled Caste, and Patel, a technical college student belonging to an OBC community, allegedly used “abusive language” for Modi and Adityanath, the FIR said. It said the two had claimed that “the prime minister and the chief minister were responsible for the spread of Corona pandemic”, and that their statements were not in national interest.
Talking to Article 14, Bharati said that for the last few years, she and Mohit had been advocating for the rights of Dalits and other marginalised communities in Chitrakoot.
When, following the announcement of a nationwide lockdown in March 2020, migrant workers began to return to Chitrakoot in large numbers, Bharati and Patel began to arrange food and other essentials for the stranded and jobless workers and their families.
“The mismanagement of the Corona situation by the central as well as state government was so glaring that we could not restrain ourselves and spoke against that as well,” Bharati said. “We pointed towards the failure of prime minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Adityanath in providing any help to these workers who were on the verge of starvation.”
Sedition cases for comments on the chief minister came with the threat of assault by Adityanath supporters, said at least one accused.
“Sometimes the police receive their instructions not just for filing a sedition case but also for opening the gate of the lockup,” said Zakir Ali Tyagi of Muzaffarnagar district in western UP, “so that Hindutva activists could personally thrash the accused.”
On 2 April 2017, Tyagi who was then not yet 18 years old and had just been granted admission into an undergraduate course, was picked up for having written a Facebook post listing criminal cases pending against the then newly elected chief minister. Tyagi was kept in a lock-up at Muzaffarnagar city’s Kotwali police station that day.
“Around 2 am, five men—none belonging to the police—entered the room and started beating me. All the while, they kept saying that my life would be destroyed and I would be declared a terrorist because I had commented on Yogi,” Tyagi told Article 14. The policemen did not intervene to protect him until he had sustained injuries, he said.
The next day, Zakir was produced in a local court and sent to jail. Forty-two days later, he was released on bail. A day later, the police informed him that “because of pressure from senior police officers of Lucknow”, he would be tried for sedition. A chargesheet was filed in his case on 18 May 2017, and included section 124 A of the IPC. The trial began a month later.
Using Sedition Charges To Subvert An Election
Even where complainants in sedition cases are policemen, the pressure from Hindutva groups was often obvious.
When the Uttar Pradesh (UP) police arrested a group of Samajwadi Party (SP) workers in March 2021 for sloganeering against the state government and burning an effigy of chief minister Yogi Adityanath, the men faced charges routinely invoked in cases of political protests—rioting, obstructing traffic, etc. However, apparently after careful thought, the police later applied Section 124 A of the IPC to the FIR.
This prevented easy bail for the men, among whom were a few aspirants to the upcoming Zila Panchayat (rural local self-government bodies) polls.
“Anyone can guess what might have happened,” said Anuj Singh Yadav, Chitrakoot district president of the SP, and among the 12 men arrested. “While the entire FIR was typed, section 124 A was written by hand.”
On 16 March 2021, a group of SP workers led by Yadav held a demonstration at Traffic Chowk, the main traffic junction of Karwi town, the headquarter of Chitrakoot district that lies on the state’s southern border with Madhya Pradesh. There was sloganeering about what the protestors said were government failures pertaining to the economy and law and order.
The men also burnt an effigy of Adityanath, a common form of protest by opposition parties and a tool used by the BJP too while staging demonstrations in states where it is in the opposition.
Local BJP leaders in Chitrakoot, however, were incensed, and began a social media campaign seeking the arrest of the SP men.
“They threatened senior district officials that they would gherao (prevent them from leaving) them if they did not arrest us immediately,” Yadav said.
By evening the police registered an FIR at the Karwi Kotwali police station against 12 SP leaders and workers and an additional 10-12 unidentified people. Following raids that night, within hours, all 12 identified accused in the case, including Yadav, were taken into custody.
While the arrest appeared provoked by political vendetta, it was still not unusual—many state governments were using coercive means to prevent political protests in the name of maintaining social distancing since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The SP men were booked under various sections of the IPC, including sections 147 (rioting), 188 (disobedience to order promulgated by public servant), 269 (causing the spread of infection of life threatening disease), 341 (obstructing the movement of traffic), section 66 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (dishonest or fraudulent act involving computers) and section 6 of United Provinces Special Powers Act, 1932 (organising the mock funeral of a living person).
These offences, however, could not have prevented the men from getting bail from the lower court. A Supreme Court order had also directed that those accused of minor offences entailing sentences of less than seven years’ imprisonment should not be sent to jail during the pandemic.
Just before the police presented the case in court to obtain remand of the accused, they added a new charge to the FIR: Section 124 A.
Inspector Virendra Tripathi, the SHO of the Kotwali police station, told Article 14 that the printed FIR did not include the sedition charge because section 124 A is a very old statute and “does not show in our computer system”. He added, “That was why this section was written by hand on the printed FIR, and this was done immediately after the printout was taken.”
Yadav rejected Tripathi’s claim. Until the men were brought to the court, they had no information that section 124 A was being applied. “It was only when the court permitted the police to take us to jail that we got to know about this charge,” he said.
The FIR showed the initial charges arranged in serial order from 1 to 6. In front of serial number 6, the space remained vacant, but that was clearly for United Provinces Special Powers Act, which was written by hand. There was no other vacant space nor another serial number.
The sedition charge was handwritten on a corner of the FIR.
Also, the descriptive part of the FIR lacked the usual words and expressions used to prepare the grounds for use of section 124 A.
Yadav had already declared his intention to contest the Zila Panchayat elections, as had two others in the group. The remaining accused were active party members. “The BJP feared that we would defeat their candidates,” Yadav said, “and so it wanted us to not get bail until the elections were over.”
The BJP had cause for uncertainty over Panchayat elections in Chitrakoot.
The district has two Assembly seats, Karwi and Manikpur, the former a traditional stronghold of the SP. The BJP won both the seats in the 2017 Assembly election, but six months later, in the Karwi municipal council election, the SP won a comprehensive victory against the BJP.
Then, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP won the Chitrakoot seat by a slender margin, but when elections were held to the legislative council in 2020, the designated voters (a graduates’ constituency) came out overwhelmingly in support of SP candidate Maan Singh Yadav, who defeated four-time BJP member of the legislative council YD Sharma.
Ten days before a final election notification was issued on 26 March, Yadav and his party colleagues were arrested.
In Chitrakoot, polling for the Zila Panchayat members was held on 19 April, and the results were declared early in May. Yadav and his colleagues got bail on 4 June, long after the election process was completed.
The BJP lost the election, winning only four out of 17 member seats in the Chitrakoot Zila Panchayat. The SP took five seats, and was the single largest party.
In the second round of Panchayat elections held in June and July 2021, when elected members had to elect their respective chairpersons, there were reports of the BJP misusing state machinery to capture most of these posts.
Complaints Based On Fake Videos Of BJP’s Opponents
The SP’s experience in Chitrakoot during the first round of Panchayat elections was not the only instance of police using the sedition law against the BJP’s political opponents.
In 2017, for instance, months after Adityanath became chief minister, a sedition case was filed against supporters of Congress leader Sana Khan, the newly elected Nagar Panchayat chairperson of Dhaurahra town in Lakhimpur district, for allegedly chanting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ during a victory procession on 1 December. The complainant was the son of BJP candidate Sushma Devi, who Sana Khan had defeated.
Reports said police suspected the authenticity of the video, as no one in the clip could be seen mouthing the slogan. The police complaint named 11 accused apart from unidentified supporters of Sana Khan.
A similar case emerged in May 2021, when Aslam, a newly elected sarpanch of Belauta panchayat in Sitapur district, was sent to jail on sedition charges. On 2 May, shortly after Aslam’s victory, a video went viral in which voices were heard shouting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ along with ‘Aslam Bhaiya Zindabad’. The faces of those shouting slogans were not visible. On 7 May, police filed an FIR and arrested Aslam, along with three others, invoking section 124 A of the IPC among other sections of the law.
Aslam’s brother Shakeel Ahmed alleged that police had registered the FIR under pressure from the RSS and the Bajrang Dal, and that the fake video had been created by losing candidates in the Panchayat election. On 3 July, while Aslam was still in custody, police filed a chargesheet in which the sedition charge was dropped, but the susceptibility of the police to the RSS’s pressure had been revealed, once again.
This is the second of a two-part series that examines patterns of sedition cases in Uttar Pradesh between 2010 and 2021. You can read the first part here. This investigation took place between August and September 2021.
(Dhirendra K Jha is a reporter and writer based in New Delhi. This report was based on data contained in Article 14’s sedition database, A Decade of Darkness. All graphics by Jameela Ahmed.)