Goalpara, Darrang, Bongaigaon and Chirang (Assam): The first time that A*, 24, saw the inside of a police station was hours after he had spent a pleasant Saturday evening catching a movie with six college friends in Dhupdhara town of western Assam’s Goalpara district. It was 1 February 2019, almost two weeks before militants struck a paramilitary force convoy in Pulwama, south Kashmir and still months to go for the general election that year.
When one of his friends, Bitupan Ray, asked to borrow A’s smartphone to make a call, the first year student of commerce didn’t think much of it. Later that evening, A’s cousin called and advised him to delete a ‘bad’ photo he had posted on Facebook. It was a picture of him with the national flag of Pakistan.
A hurried over to the cousin’s place—he had no clue how to delete the post. There, he decided to deactivate the profile, he said. The post had gained traction, and comments were flooding in.
By 7 pm, two police vehicles were headed to A’s house in Besia village to arrest him, while his parents were out working in their paddy field. They were driving to his residence from Dhupdhara police station.
Another cousin named Nazir received a phone call around that time, from a coal truck driver named Sanjiv Kumar Ray, about police vehicles headed to their locality. Nazir, who knew the driver named Ray for years, told Article 14: “Later, I saw him standing outside the house with the local media, calling for my cousin to be beaten up and for the house to be burnt down.”
It was only when Article 14 told A’s family the name of the complainant that the family realised it was their truck-driver acquaintance Ray who had approached the Dhupdhara police about A’s Facebook post, calling it an “anti-national comment” for “supporting the Pakistani army”.
Also standing with Ray outside A’s house as the youngster was led away by policemen that night was Bitupan, the friend who borrowed the phone.
In the fortnight that followed the killing of 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers in the deadliest terror attack on Indian soil since the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai in 2008, seven others in Assam were booked for sedition, for writing or sharing pro-Pakistan slogans or other content on Facebook.
The accused were predominantly from poor families and rural backgrounds. Three of them interviewed by Article 14 said they barely knew their way around Facebook.
In as many as six cases of sedition registered by the Assam police from 2019 to 2022, young Muslim men and one woman were arrested for social-media posts that they said they had no role in publishing or distributing. In most of these cases, a chargesheet was filed but trial was yet to start; in two cases, the investigation was still ongoing.
Only one case (filed against three persons) was disposed of at a district sessions court in March 2019.
Along with national security laws, the sedition charge was in previous years applied primarily in terrorism-related cases in Assam, but that pattern changed in 2017, a year after the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government assumed power in the state.
This is the second of a two-part series on the misuse of India’s 151-year-old sedition law in Assam. The first part investigated instances of sedition cases filed against civil society activists and citizens who participated in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, and to target political opponents.
An investigation by Article 14 into the socio-economic profile of the accused revealed that a majority came from lower income families living in rural areas of smaller towns in Assam’s interior districts. Aged 19-28, the accused were mostly inexperienced with using smartphones and social media networking sites.
In February 2021, we reported that sedition cases were filed over the last 10 years against nearly 11,000 individuals across India, the country’s police system continuing to apply a colonial-era law discarded by most democracies around the world. Since 2014, those accused of sedition in India have included opposition politicians, students, journalists, authors and academics.
In July 2021, we reported that the Karnataka police had filed more sedition cases for social media posts than any other state. Most of these cases were illegal. In UP, our investigation found that more than 1,000 citizens were charged with sedition after chief minister Yogi Adityanath assumed office.
These investigations flow from an Article 14 database that mines multiple media, legal and police sources to record all sedition cases filed nationwide between January 2010 and February 2021. The database shows that the Assam police invoked section 124 A in 27 cases in 2018; 17 in 2019; and 12 in 2020.
A similar pattern of arrests was seen in Assam’s application of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, most recently in August 2021 when the state’s special director general of police (law and order) announced 16 arrests under the UAPA for Facebook posts “supporting” the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. These 16 accused were not charged under section 124 A.
By October, 14 of the 16 had been granted bail by lower courts, reportedly for lack of evidence.
In four of the seven cases of sedition examined by Article 14, the complainants had links to the BJP’s student organisation, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), or right wing groups like the Bajrang Dal.
In the lone case filed in Margherita (Tinsukia district) disposed of in March 2019 after the three accused secured bail, a sessions judge found that the CD submitted as evidence did ‘not reveal any incriminating materials against the accused’.
Eight Booked In Feb 2019: All Poor Muslims, Two Minors
In police custody for two days, A said he was slapped around and beaten on his hands with a baton. “They called me a desh drohi (traitor) and demanded to know why I posted the photo,” he told Article 14. “I was repeatedly asked about my connections with Pakistan.”
He spent 25 days in the district jail in Goalpara before being released on bail.
On his first day in jail, a murder convict was offended by a purported anti-India slogan in the Facebook post that got A into trouble. “He slapped me across my face,” he said. “I was made to sit outside, under the sun, the whole day.”
B*, a resident of Chirang district’s Basugaon (in the Bodoland Territorial Region), had a similar story to tell.
In 2018, his uncle opened a Facebook account for him on a new smartphone he had purchased. Then 19 years old, B was working as a daily wage labourer despite being the youngest of eight siblings. He never went to school and cannot read or write.
“I downloaded the application primarily to play PUB-G with my friends,” B told Article 14. “I must have uploaded a photo only once.” An interactive gaming platform where players go on virtual mercenary-like kill operations, PUB-G was banned in India in 2020.
In February 2019, after the Pulwama attack, B was arrested and charged with sedition for sharing a Facebook post that said, ‘Pakistan Army Zindabad’. The post, written in English, had already been shared so widely that local civil society group Bodoland Territorial Council Minority Students Union stepped in to support the boy.
B was arrested and detained in Kokrajhar jail for two weeks and a chargesheet filed.
Now working as a daily wage labourer, B denied sharing the post. His older brother Usman said many friends and others used B’s phone. “His biggest mistake was that he could not read the post.”
Over 170 km east from Chirang, in Ganakjhar village number 2 (in Kamrup Rural district), C*’s Facebook post had similarly gone viral in February 2019. “I was accused of posting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ on Facebook but I rarely ever use my phone,” said the 26-year-old, who had been working in a biscuit factory in Guwahati for nine years until the police case changed his life. He was charged under section 124 A of the IPC.
He told Article 14 he found out what was posted only when he got a call from home saying the police were looking for him and had picked up his brother. A colleague at the biscuit factory would use his phone regularly, he said, to check Facebook and talk to his girlfriend.
Also booked for sedition in February 2019, D*, 21, of Mangaldai town (Darrang district), had a Facebook profile under a pseudonym, Sunny Alfatyds, the name mentioned in the FIR.
“The police came in civil dress to pick me up,” D told Article 14. The men, from Mangaldai police station, told him he had sent “inappropriate texts” to a girl on Facebook. He went along to see the evidence and didn’t call his parents, following police instructions.
At the station, however, D found himself arrested for a Facebook post on his page that he said he had not posted. It was a cartoon, no longer available on his profile, depicting the Pakistan flag hoisted higher than the Indian flag.
D said he had been at the local gym that day, and had left his phone at home. “I hadn’t signed out of the Facebook app that was left open,” he said. A glance through his profile showed that the youngster’s social media activity mostly involved sharing photos of himself and, occasionally, jokes and memes. There was no history of sharing any political or controversial post.
He said he met another Muslim man in prison, from Dalgaon, also booked for sharing something on social media. “He went to the thana to register a complaint against the post, and was instead arrested,” D said.
None of the accused interviewed by Article 14 recalled seeing or sharing political or religiously polarising content on their social media newsfeed; most said they were hardly active on the platform and vehemently denied posting or sharing any pro-Pakistan messages.
A School Teacher Faces Sedition Charge For Flag Misdemeanour
The only educated, English-speaking accused among those arrested for sedition in the first few months of 2019 was a school teacher from Abhayapuri in the Bongaigaon district of Western Assam.
Late on 14 May 2021, S*, 28, received a message from a neighbour showing a screenshot. It was a photo taken by a friend earlier that day, at her home where she had hosted a small Eid lunch for friends.
In the photo, S was seen with her friends at a table that had the Indian national flag draped over it, a punishable offence under Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971.
The Flag Code Of India, 2002, explicitly prohibits the use of the flag as any kind of drapery, including on podiums and the desk of a speaker.
The neighbour told S that the photo had been shared on a popular Facebook page called ‘Assamese Memes’ and had invited some angry responses.
S told Article 14 that one of her guests at the Eid lunch had posted the photo as her WhatsApp status, and an argument had ensued later with a male friend who demanded that she apologise for the photo. “I can only assume that he shared the screenshot on Facebook,” said S.
After repeated pleas, S managed to convince the administrator of the FB page to take down the post. It had only been shared by five or six people at that point.
But on 15 May, a screenshot of the post went viral, posted and shared repeatedly by right-wing accounts on Facebook and Twitter. A senior police officer and Assam police’s official Twitter handle took note.
S was preparing to submit an apology with her friends when she received a phone call from an officer at the North Salmara police station in Abhayapuri. “He asked me to gather all my friends in the photo at my place where two policemen would come to take our statement,” she said. But with the police came several news crews.
S took the police to the room where the Eid lunch had been served but was otherwise used as her study where she tutored children privately. “The police draped the flag on the table and the media portrayed it as if it was always there,” she said.
S and five of her friends were arrested the same day, charged with sedition and criminal conspiracy, and under section 2 of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971 (draping the national flag in any form except state funerals; covering a monument or desk, etc), a charge that carries a maximum punishment of three years, or a fine, or both.
Sauradeep Dey, a Guwahati high court lawyer with the Human Rights Law Network, said the sedition charge did not appear to be appropriate. “Before invoking sedition and arresting people, it ought to have been ascertained whether there was prima facie intent to incite any disaffection towards the government of India,” he told Article 14.
S was the last to be released on bail, three weeks later, in June. In the bail order, the Gauhati High Court bench remarked, “It does not prima facie suggest to be an act to have the affect (sic) of subverting the government by bringing that government into contempt or hatred or creating disaffection against it.”
The FIR said S and the others “confessed”, and that they “wilfully dishonoured our national flag by using it as a dining cloth which is derogatory”. It said the act also brought “hatred against government”. Speaking to Article 14, S conceded that one of them had spread the flag on the table, but said they had not intended it as an act of dishonour.
Legal experts told Article 14 that non-bailable offences under the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act are not very different from the sedition law. In both cases, said Darshana Mitra, a legal researcher who teaches law at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata, “we are criminalising perceived lack of patriotism”.
The police filed a chargesheet in the case in November 2021.
Most Complainants Linked To Hindutva Groups
Three of the seven ‘pro-Pakistan’ Facebook posts that attracted sedition cases in February 2019 were filed suo moto by the Assam police.
In the cases where FIRs were registered based on complaints, Article 14 found that the complainants were all directly or indirectly associated with Hindu right-wing groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Bajrang Dal and the ABVP.
In February 2019, by the time C left the biscuit factory in Guwahati for his home on hearing that the police were looking for him, members of the local unit of the Bajrang Dal had surrounded the Baihata Chariali police station in Kamrup (Rural) district. The complainant in his case was Dipankar Deka, a local Bajrang Dal leader in his early twenties.
C told Article 14 that the Facebook post his case was based on was actually a cartoon depicting a man urinating on a Muslim cleric. The accompanying text, he said, read: ‘Pakistan Nindabad’, or ‘vilification’ in Assamese.
On the phone, Deka claimed that C’s post was a divisive message about killing Hindus, but he evaded meeting Article 14 despite repeated requests.
At the police station, police interrogated him about his connections in Pakistan, C said. Some unidentified individuals were goading the police to beat him up. He said he was beaten and then sent to Nalbari jail where he spent 29 days before being released on bail.
In Dhupdhara, a local club of Besiapara had discussed A’s post. One of the club members, the trucker named Sanjiv Kumar Ray, told police that he feared a communal riot on account of the pro-Pakistan post. Sanjiv Ray identified himself as a member of the RSS.
“He didn’t do the right thing,” Ray told Article 14 over the phone. “Living in India, how can he support Pakistan?” He claimed A’s post called for death to the Indian Army. “I registered the complaint out of love for my country,” he said.
Sanjiv Ray and A’s family were acquainted for 23 years. “The Muslims here are all connected to ISI (Inter Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s intelligence agency),” he said.
A’s family told Article 14 that Sanjiv Ray and Bitupan Ray (who borrowed his phone on the day of the arrest) lived close to each other in the same village.
Article 14 reached out to Bitupan on Facebook. He said he didn’t know anybody named A from his village or college.
Barring A’s case, however, the other accused were not personally acquainted with the complainants.
Jagadish Narayan Dev, a 36-year-old in Mangaldai district who filed the complaint against D in 2019, was friends with members of the ABVP. His friends showed him the Facebook post, and the group of ABVP members approached Mangaldai police station to lodge a complaint. “My friends wrote the complaint but no one wanted to sign it,” Dev told Article 14. “So I thought, why not do it for the country?”
He never read the contents of the FIR.
Elite Cyber Policing Cell Keeps Eye On Social Media Posts
In Assam, the imposition of sedition charges on citizens for their Facebook posts started in 2019, following the Pulwama attack.
In July 2018, then chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal launched the Assam police ‘Cyberdome and Digital Intelligence and Training and Analysis Centre’, a police unit that would specialise in cyber investigation and forensics.
The number of people using mobile phones with Internet subscriptions rose in Assam from 32.72% in 2010 to 71.75% in 2021. Hiren Nath, the additional director general of police heading the Cyberdome project, said his team would “reduce the ever-increasing gap between the cyber criminals and cyber policing”, using trained manpower and the latest technology to optimise “predictive policing”.
Police officers and sub-inspectors associated with the Cyberdome project told Article 14 that they monitored social media activities of users in their jurisdiction, keeping a special watch for posts related to Pakistan.
Officers told Article 14 that the Cyberdome team played a key role in identifying cases and tracking down the accused, helping to identify individuals from pseudonyms in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack in 2019, and then the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021.
“The Cyberdome in Guwahati alerts police stations to online posts, either to inquire or to register an FIR,” said the investigating officer in a sedition case against a social media user, speaking on condition of anonymity since he was not authorised to speak to the media. “But we don’t always take action. Sometimes we just counsel the users. Most of them are very young.”
In one case registered suo moto by the police through the Cyberdome team’s intervention over a Pakistan-related post, a sub-inspector said it was done to “maintain communal harmony and social order”.
Another officer, also speaking on condition of anonymity, at a police station where an individual complainant filed a sedition case, told Article 14 that cases of sedition brought by the public are taken seriously, but only if they are posts about Pakistan. “Support for any other country will not amount to a criminal offence,” said the officer.
Nath told Article 14 that the Cyberdome project has “pioneered” giving institutional and effective responses to cyber crimes and “misuse of social media by miscreants, insurgents and trouble-mongers”. He said they prevented 270 youth from joining banned outfits in Assam.
According to official figures, the police at Cyberdome found 5,100 posts “objectionable”, with 275 cases registered on the basis of these posts, and 1,320 persons were “counselled”.
Defamed, Ostracised: Accused Find Lives Devastated
All the six persons accused of sedition tracked down by Article 14 said they now avoided using social media or were persuaded against it by family members.
“For the next 15 days, he cried,” A’s mother told Article 14 about her son’s return home after 25 days in prison. “He complained of aches all over his body and could barely concentrate on his studies.”
When he resumed classes, there was a period of tension in college. A fellow student asked if he had learnt his lesson. “He told me, ‘You Bongals (a derogatory word for Bengal-origin residents in Assam) should be given this lesson’,” A said.
Out on bail, C went back to Guwahati to work in a restaurant before the Covid-19 lockdown in March 2021, but returned to his own village soon, where he opened a small grocery shop.
For his bail application, the family had approached the owner of the Guwahati bakery for a character certificate. “But he refused, saying I had been paid for my services and he couldn’t do anything else,” C said.
His lawyer, Maquib Talukdar, told Article 14 that he expected the case to be quashed by the sessions court. “He is not a terrorist or anything,” the lawyer said. “These cases just drag on because of the long process. Since the Bajrang Dal had registered an FIR, he got framed.”
S left her teaching job at a school where she had worked for almost a decade. The principal advised her that students or staff might pass a comment that could affect her mental health, she said.
Struggling with insomnia and recurring thoughts about the incident, S had to consult a psychiatrist and was on medication for some time. She still suffered panic attacks, she said. Her future prospects, including a government job for which she planned to take competitive exams, and whether potential suitors will ask about the case worry her.
In prison, she used the free time to learn about the Indian Constitution. “If only I had been more aware of my rights as I am now,” she said, “it wouldn’t have gotten so bad.”
*All the accused requested not to be named for fear of reprisal.
(Makepeace Sitlhou is a journalist based in Guwahati. She covers India’s northeast for several national and international publications.)