How India’s Sedition Law Is Used As A Private, Political, Communal Weapon

MOHIT RAO
 
14 Jul 2021 19 min read  Share

Sedition charge to quell a protest. Sedition cases against political dissidents, opposition parties. Sedition law against Muslims when Pakistan beats Indian cricket team or when a private complaint alleges without proof that a man chanted ‘Pakistan Zindabad’. How police, politicians in Karnataka misuse a British-era law. Second of a three-part series.

ART BY TARA ANAND

Bengaluru: The uneasy calm in a north Karnataka village evaporated within minutes of asking for directions to the masjid, the mosque, or what remained of it. Nearly 50 villagers gathered, intensely hostile.

“Are you Hindu or Muslim?” one asked. Saffron flags dotted the village of about 1,500 people, including only 18 Muslim households. 

On 15 February, 2019, a day after 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans were killed in a terror attack in Pulwama in Jammu & Kashmir, six Muslim men of this village were accused of “celebrating” in the mosque. According to a police complaint filed by a farmer who is also a local BJP leader, the men, all aged between 40 years and 65 years, distributed sweets, shouted slogans in support of Pakistan and celebrated by “smearing green colour on themselves”. 

Two days later, all six were arrested and charged under  Section 124A (sedition) and Section 153 (provocation with the intent to cause a riot) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860. Other sections of the IPC pertaining to unlawful assembly and rioting were also applied. 

Since the day the complaint was filed more than two years ago, communal tensions in the village have been palpable.    

By all accounts, the first information report (FIR) set in motion a virulent mandir-masjid political face-off in this nondescript village in one of Karnataka’s poorest regions. “Visuals” of the alleged celebration’s aftermath – a grainy video showing boxes of sweets and powder lying on a platform with a small shrine that served as a mosquewere broadcast on local news channels as proof of seditious activity.

The six men accused, and some other villagers, said this footage was of the Sevalal Jayanthi festivities observed on 15 February by the Lambani community present in large numbers in the village.

That did not quell the communal fervour. The next day, a mob blocked traffic around the village, chanted ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ as people barged into the mosque during the afternoon prayer, evicted the devotees and set fire to prayer mats, posters and flags. The shrine was vandalised.

A 60-year-old Muslim man, one of the accused, said they were in their fields all day and did not even know of the Pulwama attack, for they own neither mobile phones nor television sets. “We didn’t even meet at the masjid that night,” he said.

Two years later, only the green walls of the shrine remained, the space it enclosed  overrun by shrubs. It was not a full-fledged mosque, as the village had only a marginal number of Muslim devotees. It was a government-owned property where the village’s Muslims began to offer prayers nearly 15 years ago. 

“No one had an objection to this, and we even added a few things like a Peer Baba shrine and some religious artefacts,” said one of the accused men. Fearful for their safety, the men met Article 14 outside the village. Over the last three to four years, the threat of violence had been looming, he said. 

“By filing a false sedition case, they got what they wanted,” said the man. “The masjid has been destroyed.”


Sedition: A Tool To Fan Communal Tensions 

The villagers’ experience is echoed in several other cases, in Karnataka and across India, where a sedition charge is used as a tool to further political or communal motives. Often, the charge becomes an easy means to extract revenge or level political scores.

India’s anti-sedition law traces its roots to the British Raj. Introduced in 1870, it was used primarily to quell political opposition and the freedom movement. 

Independent India continues to use the law as a tool of oppression, increasingly so over the past few years. An Article 14 database of sedition cases between 2009 and 2020 shows that 96% of such cases filed against 405 Indians for criticising politicians and governments over the last decade were registered after 2014. 

The second of a three-part series on Karnataka’s flurry of sedition cases in recent years, this report investigates the use of the sedition charge as a political tool, to incite violence and to tip the scales in local rivalries. The first part detailed the rising incidence of the sedition charge being applied, illegally, for social media posts. The third part considers the role of the police and lower judiciary in permitting the charge to be used and the lasting impact it has on those accused of seditious activities. 

Across India, 149 accused faced sedition charges for “critical” and/or “derogatory” remarks against Modi, 144 against Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister Yogi Adityanath. These accused include students, journalists, opposition party politicians and activists.

Karnataka is not any different. The state has recorded 53 sedition cases since 2010. Of these, at least 29 cases–or 56%–are linked to a political opinion expressed at rallies or on social media, or perceived by the accused to be a result of local political rivalry, according to the Article 14 database and interviews with the accused or their lawyers in 32 cases. This includes men and women who spoke against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, and the situation in Kashmir.

During the anti-CAA protests, 22 of 25 sedition cases involving 3,700 people were filed in BJP-ruled states. This includes six cases in Karnataka.


Sedition Charges For Political Protests

In November 2019, Congress and Janata Dal (S) leaders in Karnataka, including former chief ministers, faced sedition charges for organising a protest against the income tax department in November 2019. 

Sedition charges were filed against Congress legislator U T Khader for his speech following the anti-CAA protests. Police found his statement that the country would see unrest if the law was enacted to be objectionable. 

In the north-eastern edge of the state, the management of a primary school in Bidar were charged for organising a play against the CAA. 

A 22-year-old woman was charged for shouting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ at a rally. She was trying to make a larger point about unity among South Asian neighbours.

In Mangaluru, three supporters of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political extension of the Popular Front of India, against which the BJP has sought a ban, were arrested on sedition charges for a social media post exhorting protestors to use mobile cameras to expose police brutality. This was after the death of two anti-CAA protesters in police firing in the region.

“Sedition as a law should be obsolete. But it is being used to stifle dissent whether it is the opposition or writers and thinkers,” said A.S. Ponnanna, spokesperson for the Congress party in Karnataka. He said agitations cannot be called seditious for their anti-government stand. “If it is, then what is the role of the opposition party? An opposition, even as defined by the Constitution, is supposed to question the government, find faults and ensure the ruling party’s electoral defeat,” he told Article 14.

The political colour of sedition cases is reflected in the affiliation of complainants. 

The Saffron Colour Of Sedition Complaints

Based on interviews of the accused and media reports, there are at least 13 sedition cases in Karnataka in which the complainant is affiliated to the BJP or other right-wing Hindutva groups such as Bajrang Dal, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), Hindu Yuva Morcha. The accused in these cases were members of political groups and Muslims. 

In January 2021, three more SDPI workers were arrested for allegedly chanting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ at the celebrations of their candidates’ victory in local Gram Panchayat (village self-government institutions) elections in coastal Karnataka. The police acted on the complaint of a local Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader and on the basis of a viral video of SDPI supporters with an accompanying audio of the ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ chant. 

The three were released on bail in May 2020, nearly four months after their arrest. It is unclear whether the audio is the original recording or tampered or if the men are indeed chanting the words.   

According to SDPI leaders, the party workers were shouting ‘SDPI Zindabad’ as the results came in. “At the same time, some BJP workers were shouting ‘Pakistan Murdabad’, as if to say that our victory was a victory of Pakistan,” said Abkar Belthangady, a local SDPI leader. 

He said they procured a video clearly showing three people in “a sea of BJP flags” shouting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’. He said nobody can say with certainty if those men were BJP workers, or even if the audio of the viral clip isn’t actually a blend of the two chants, ‘SDPI Zindabad’ and ‘Pakistan Murdabad’. 

“Isn’t it political to make arrests only based on this video?” Belthangady asked

In March 2016, the ABVP’s Karnataka unit accused two Left-affiliated students’ union members who were distributing pamphlets in support of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students’ union leader Kanhaiya Kumar of sedition. The complaint claimed that the students were shouting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ at a busy circle on the outskirts of Bengaluru. “The police filed a sedition case based solely on this false complaint. There was no proof or evidence,” said one of the accused in that case. The superintendent of the police intervened and the charge was dropped.

Not even BJP leaders were spared from accusations of sedition. 

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Doublespeak Over Sedition

Then BJP member of the legislative council in Karnataka and spokesperson G Madhusudhan faced sedition charges in November 2017 for reportedly saying that the Constitution of India was “not sacrosanct”. He made the comment during a television debate, in the context of the Congress-led state government celebrating Tipu Jayanti. 

The police in a remote north Karnataka town filed a sedition case against Madhusudan based on the complaint of a man who watched this discussion on TV. “The complaint was politically motivated,”  Madhusudan told Article 14. He claimed that in Mysuru there were some protests against his comment and demands for a sedition case against him. The police refused. 

The Devadurga police, nearly 650 km away, took it up instead, he said. The Karnataka High Court has since stayed the case.

Two years later, when a sedition case was filed against two college students for holding a ‘Free Kashmir’ poster at an anti-CAA protest in Mysuru, Madhusudhan was among those who voiced vociferous support. “Sedition should be filed against those who seek to break the unity of the country. Not against politicians or for political gain,” he told Article 14 by way of explaining his apparent doublespeak.

The deployment of sedition cases against activists has been agnostic of the government in power.  

The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) was targeted in 2010 by the BJP government after an editorial in their newsletter blamed the government for the death of five tribals, alleged to be naxals, in southern Karnataka and for the increasing anti-Christian violence in coastal Karnataka.

It was a Congress-led government at the helm when Amnesty International was booked for sedition following a complaint by the ABVP. On 13 August 2016, there was a sizable police presence at Amnesty’s event titled ‘Kashmir’s broken families’. Just as a popular Kashmiri rapper was to take the stage at the venue in Bengaluru, policemen switched off the microphone system. 

Some agitated members of the audience then began to chant, “azaadi, azaadi (freedom, freedom).” Even as the organisers calmed the crowd, ABVP activists outside the venue filed a complaint against Amnesty International. Sedition was among the charges applied.

Aakar Patel, director of Amnesty International India, said the sedition charge was applied to “harass” them. Violent mobs outside Amnesty’s former offices in Bengaluru were instigated by B S Yeddiyurappa, now chief minister; and Ananth Kumar, a former union minister, Patel told Article 14. The staff inside the offices were barricaded for two days and police had to resort to violence to disperse the mob. 

“And for what? For an 80-page report by the police three years later to say there was no evidence of sedition,” Patel said. The case was dismissed in 2019. “What a waste of resources. But the damage was done. We must have lost Rs 1 crore in earnings through collaborations that were cancelled due to this,” he said.

‘They Are Treating Me Like The British Treated Gandhi’

It was a Congress government at the helm again when Karnataka police filed sedition cases against 62-year-old V. Shashidhar, a former policeman who was discharged as a constable in 1987 and subsequently formed the Akhila Karnataka Police Mahasangha, a state-wide union of policemen. 

Shashidhar faced two sedition cases: in 2016, when he gave a call for a mass-leave by the lower rungs of the police to protest poor working conditions of the constabulary; and again in 2019, when the Congress-JD(S) coalition government believed that another strike call was imminent.  

“They are treating me like the British treated Gandhi. As if I am leading the policemen in non-violent revolt against the government,” Shashidhar told Article 14. Two others, both serving policemen, were charged in the sedition case in 2016 too. According to Shashidhar, he was only the face of an unhappy constabulary.

In 2016, he spent 86 days in jail. In 2019, he spent a further 22 days in jail. Both times, he got bail and the case was stayed by the courts. But the last four years have been “unbearable”, he said, with policemen visiting his home in the middle of the night with search warrants. He said the issue of police reform is a thorn in the side of the government, regardless of which party is in power.

The Congress-led government told the court in August 2016 that his actions amounted to incitement against the government. Speaking anonymously, a prosecutor connected with the case conceded that the sedition charge was used as a tool to stifle a protest movement against the regime. 

Private Complaints Of Sedition Grow   

The Article 14 database also shows repeated instances of the sedition law’s scope being widened, a trend in which anyone may allege seditious activity and an over-eager police applies the draconian section of the IPC in response. 

Anushka Singh, assistant professor at Ambedkar University, Delhi, and author of Sedition in Liberal Democracies (Oxford University Press, 2018), said that while sedition has been used in India to target the marginalised, an unprecedented awareness of the law among common citizens has made it a “popular” law. 

She said that the 1980s and 1990s saw sedition cases filed to challenge, for example, the Khalistani or Kashmiriyat movements. In those instances, the charge was a political tool to challenge an identity or identity-based movement. “Now, the law has gained popularity,” she said, and more individuals file sedition complaints. “This sort of private complaint for sedition wasn’t there even two decades ago.” 

This casual use of sedition is perhaps best illustrated in the physical altercation that quickly turned into a sedition case in a pub in Bengaluru city on the night of 22 February 2019.

According to the accused, a food delivery man directed some comments towards a group of female students. An argument ensued, followed by a fist fight that had to be dispersed by the police. At the police station, each group filed a case against the other. Based on the students’ complaint, a case of assault, illegal assembly and wrongful restraint was filed against five or six delivery men.

In their complaint, however, the men said the students had shouted ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ and anti-government slogans. This appeared to have stemmed from a conversation about the Pulwama attack among the students before the fight broke out. 

A sedition case was filed. “They made up the entire scenario. Nothing we had said could even be considered as against the Indian state,” said one of the accused students. Fortunately for the students, the local deputy commissioner of police intervened and the cases were closed with no further enquiries done.

Sedition For Cricket Or Communal Fervour 

Another pattern apparent in the Article 14 database is that sedition cases are filed at communally sensitive times, including the post-Pulwama weeks and during Ramzan or other Muslim festivals. Since 2010, 62% of the sedition cases in Karnataka have been filed against Muslims, who make up 13% of the state’s population: a majority of the Muslims so accused were not affiliated with political organisations and were from poor families.  

In a small town in central Karnataka, just as preparations were underway to host thousands of devout Muslims observing Milad-ul-Nabi in December 2015, a single  pamphlet arrived at the house of a local Hindu community leader. The pamphlet, in Kannada with an ISIS masthead, used derogatory terms to describe the caste of the Hindu leader and broadly threatened to “hunt and kill all Hindus” if atrocities against Muslims continue. The pamphlet was “signed” by a local photographer who ostensibly gave not only his full name and the brand name of his business, but also  the address of his studio.

“Why would a warning letter that was so communal have the writer’s full address?” the photographer said. He told Article 14 the incident was intended to create trouble before the festivities. He said he did not know why he was targeted.

In previous years, the town had been witness to sporadic communal tension during festivities. In December 2015, as pictures of the pamphlet were circulated, large parts of the city were shut down and thousands of Hindu right-wing group members marched through Muslim-dominated areas. The photographer’s studio was torched on 27 December.

“I was in jail when I heard what happened to my studio. That’s when I cried,” he said. He had invested six years’ earnings in the studio while his family subsisted on his father’s income as a flower seller. Equipment worth Rs 4 lakh was lost, and hundreds of photos that customers were waiting for. 

The photographer spent 62 days in jail before being released on bail.  

In 2017, a charge sheet was filed. Apart from the initial charges of promoting enmity between groups (IPC 153 A), the police added a sedition charge. The consequence was that while he lives in the “shadow of another arrest”, the town became a tinderbox of communal tensions that erupt from time to time.

In 2017, the year when Pakistan drubbed India in the finals of the  ICC Champions Trophy, that last match coincided with the festivities of Ramzan. At least four cases were filed across the state against Muslims for “celebrating” Pakistan’s victory on the cricket field.

In a small village in Karnataka’s Western Ghats, the son of a popular Panchayat member was accused of bursting fire-crackers after Pakistan’s victory.

The then 22-year-old had just returned from Saudi Arabia to celebrate Ramzan with his family. According to him, his friends and he were passing the late night hours by bursting fire-crackers to shoo away elephants that occasionally come to the fields. “We don’t even watch cricket,” he claimed. “In fact, if we had to celebrate anything, it was India’s victory over Pakistan in the hockey match on that day.”

Fifteen minutes after he and three friends burst fire-crackers, they were arrested, on a local BJP leader’s complaint.

At the police station, a crowd of BJP workers gathered, demanding action. Television channels read out the complaint. “It was during police questioning that we realised that the complainant said we burst crackers while also shouting Pakistan Zindabad and waving the Pakistan flag,” said the young man. He was in jail for 26 days before procuring bail.

His passport was seized and for three years he couldn’t return to the Middle East. “My father and the complainant were political rivals. We were victims of this,” he said. 

Around the same time, in another town nearly 300 km away, rumours spread that someone had burst fire-crackers to celebrate Pakistan’s cricket victory. 

Men from Hindu right-wing groups held an impromptu march demanding the closure of the market witnessing a Ramzan rush. One 19-year-old man reportedly  told the men that a closure of shops could lead to trouble. The BJP’s Yuva Morcha immediately filed a complaint and the 19-year-old spent 45 days in jail on a sedition charge.

Nearby, in a city in central Karnataka, a Bajrang Dal man claimed that he heard ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ slogans from five or six men seated in an autorickshaw parked in a busy area with thousands of Ramzan shoppers around. In his police complaint, he said he enquired with people nearby and drew up a list of five people – including three minors aged between 14 and 16 years – who were in the autorickshaw.

The primary accused in the case had borrowed the autorickshaw from a friend for that day. His friend, accused number 20 in the case, was not even in the market at the time. “I did see the three kids near the market, but they certainly didn’t come in the autorickshaw. I feel they wanted to target someone to create tension during Ramzan,” he said. He believed he was targeted because he works with the local masjid committee.

During depositions in court, one of the “eye-witnesses” in the case admitted that all witnesses to the alleged seditious chant were Bajrang Dal men, and that the organisation viewed the Muslim community with animosity. The case is in the trial stage.

An additional director general of police in Karnataka, who spoke off-the-record on sedition, said local police were “free” to file cases based on complaints received. “Sedition is a call taken by the local police based on the nature of the complaint. They can investigate the complaint, but it doesn’t go to trial unless the state government gives sanction for prosecution,” he said. According to him, such a sanction is given only after application of mind, if there is “substance” in the accusation.


The Scars Of Sedition

Most often, the scars of sedition persist longer than the criminal cases. For the accused, it is a seemingly endless wait for bail, a desperate search for lawyers amid dwindling finances. 

In the north Karnataka where a mob vandalised a mosque following a sedition case against six men accused of celebrating the Pulwama attack on CRPF men, a counter complaint was filed against those who destroyed the shrine.

The six men accused of sedition were released on bail three months later. The village they returned to now barely acknowledges their presence. The wife of one of the accused was removed from her job as a cook. Their families were called traitors; one of the men’s brothers was assaulted. 

“We are scared, but we have no place else to go. We can’t leave our land and flee. We keep to ourselves, spending our time between the fields and in our homes,” said one of the accused men. Their farms alone do not provide an adequate income, and the men depend on work as daily-wagers during the non-farm seasons. “Many have stopped giving farm jobs to Muslims here,” he added.

In 2020, the complainant, whose affiliations are with the BJP, won a local gram panchayat election. The chasm in the village widened, while dozens of saffron flags emerged on rooftops of its homes.

This is the second of a three-part series that examines patterns of sedition cases in Karnataka. Read Part One here.

(Mohit Rao is a freelance reporter based in Bengaluru. This report was based on the Sedition Database research by Article 14, headed by Lubhyathi Rangarajan. Tejaswita Kharel and Harini V.S are on the core team of the database. They are fifth-year law students at the National Law University, Delhi, and KLE Society’s Law College, Bengaluru, respectively. The graphics are by Jameela Ahmed. This work is supported by the Thakur Foundation.)