Updated: 23 May 2021
Mumbai: Sedition cases—in violation of clear Supreme Court guidelines—against six journalists and former deputy foreign minister Shashi Tharoor on 28 January 2020 in 10 first information reports (FIRs) across five states where the police are controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are part of a flood of such cases against critics and dissenters, coinciding with the rise to power of Prime Minister Narendra Modi since 2014.
Launched today, Article 14’s sedition database, a count and analysis of all sedition cases since 2010, reveals:
65% of nearly 11,000 individuals in 816 sedition cases since 2010 were implicated after 2014 when Modi took office. Among those charged with sedition: opposition politicians, students, journalists, authors and academics.
96% of sedition cases filed against 405 Indians for criticising politicians and governments over the last decade were registered after 2014, with 149 accused of making “critical” and/or “derogatory” remarks against Modi, 144 against Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister Yogi Adityanath.
A 28% increase in the number of sedition cases filed each year between 2014 and 2020, Modi’s time in office, compared to the yearly average between 2010 and 2014, the second term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) administration.
Much of this increase is due to a surge in sedition cases after protest movements, such as those against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019 and the rape of a Dalit teen at Hathras in UP.
During the anti-CAA protests, 22 of 25 sedition cases involving 3,700 people were filed in BJP-ruled states. After the Pulwama attack, 26 of 27 sedition cases involving 42 persons were filed in BJP-ruled states.
Of the five states with the highest number of sedition cases, a majority were registered during the BJP’s time in power in four of them—Bihar, UP, Karnataka and Jharkhand.
In UP, 77% of 115 sedition cases since 2010 were registered over the last four years, since Yogi Adityanath became the chief minister. More than half of these were around issues of “nationalism”: against those who protested the CAA, for shouting “Hindustan Murdabad”, allegedly celebrating Pulwama attack and India’s loss in 2017 ICC Champions Trophy.
In Bihar, between 2010-2014, the majority of sedition cases related to Maoism and counterfeit currency. After 2014, 23% of sedition cases were against those who protested the CAA, against celebrities who spoke up against lynching and intolerance and those who allegedly raised “pro-Pakistan” slogans.
Our sedition database tracks all cases registered between 1 January 2010 and 31 December 2020 under the Indian Penal Code (IPC)’s section 124A, which deals with sedition, a 151-year-old law used against Indians by the colonial government.
This is the first independent database to track and analyse the use of section 124A. The initiative is especially significant since the union home ministry started collecting such data through the National Crime Records Bureau only in 2014.
Section 124A deals with words, signs or visual representation that brings or attempts to bring “into hatred or contempt or excites disaffection against the Government” and can be punished by imprisonment for life with a fine or imprisonment that may extend to three years with a fine. The database has found that of nearly 11,000 individuals against whom sedition cases were filed over the last 10 years, 2,000 were mentioned by name, including nine minors, and the rest “unidentified” with 816 cases registered. The post-2014 trend is that those named in these cases include opposition politicians, students, journalists, authors and academics.
“It is now clear (from these data) that the law is not being misused, but is being abused,” said Justice (retired) Madan Lokur, a former judge of the Supreme Court, who also serves on Article 14’s Advisory Board. “It’s a great tragedy, more particularly so because from the brief description of cases, it would appear that many of them would run foul of the law laid down by the Supreme Court in the Kedar Nath Singh and Balwant Singh decisions.”
Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar & Balwant Singh & Bhupinder Singh vs State of Punjab, the decisions Justice Lokur referred to, made it plain that the sedition law could only be used when there was incitement to violence, or if there was intention to create disorder.
Despite two text messages and two emails, Anil Baluni, the BJP’s chief spokesperson and the media-in-charge, did not respond to Article 14.
To Shine A Light On Data And Trauma
In preparation for over six months now, the database uses data of sedition cases mined from various sources: the district court portal, state police websites, high courts nationwide and law-centric websites, such as India Kanoon, SCC Online and Manupatra.
Lubhyathi Rangarajan, a lawyer who heads the project, said that the database, still under construction, also intended to track the progress of these cases through the judicial system over the coming months.
“It is clear that thousands of people have suffered the consequences of these charges,” said Rangarajan. “Our attempt is to shine a light not just on the fact that the process is the punishment but also the traumatic impact that these charges have on people’s lives.”
The database found 519 sedition cases filed under the current BJP government over six years, compared to 279 filed between 2010 and May 2014 during the tenure of the previous UPA-2 government. Of the 279, 39% were filed during the Kudankulam Protests in Tamil Nadu, against a nuclear plant, and in relation to left-wing extremism across India. There were 18 cases for which the database could not determine the regime, due to inadequate information.
In nearly 30% of cases, a variety of other laws, such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967, Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984, and the Information Technology Act, 2000, Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971, Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, Disaster Management Act, 2005 were added to the FIRs.
The database found that five states—Bihar, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu—accounted for 534 cases, nearly 65% of all sedition cases in the last decade.
While cases in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka were focussed on “nationalism”-related offences, states in central and eastern India largely used sedition law against those involved in left-wing extremism and protests over land.
Tackling Critics, BJP Style
A dominant pattern that the data reveal is the increase in sedition cases over the last six years, since Modi entered office.
Of 10,938 Indians accused of sedition over the last decade, 65% found themselves so implicated after May 2014, when the Modi government came to power.
Much of this increase in sedition cases has been driven by the way BJP-ruled state governments have pursued critics and protesters. The database found that sedition charges were a de-facto strategy for many of these governments, each time they encountered public criticism and protests.
The database observed surges in sedition cases during major protests or political events critical of the BJP government at the Centre and the states.
Leaders of the Patidar and the Jat agitations were charged with sedition in 2015 and 2016. In 2017, cases in Haryana shot up on account of the protests against Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s conviction. The Pathalgadi movement in Jharkhand led to hundreds of Adivasis being charged with sedition in 2018. After coming to power in December 2019, the Hemant Soren-led government had recommended dropping these cases. However, recent news reports suggest that these charges are yet to be formally withdrawn.
Such a trend was most visible after nationwide protests erupted protesting the Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019. Across the country, police authorities booked 3,754 individuals and filed 25 sedition cases, of which 96 were identified and the rest were “unidentified”. Of the 25 cases, 22 were in BJP-ruled states. After public outcry, the Jharkhand government had recommended dropping charges against 3,000 individuals who had been booked under Section 124A by the Dhanbad police.
Similarly, after the Pulwama terrorist attack in February 2019, when 40 paramilitary personnel were killed by a suicide bomber, 27 cases were filed against 44 individuals—from allegedly raising “Pro-Pakistan” slogans to posting “anti-national” messages on social media: 26 of these 27 cases were filed in BJP-ruled states.
Most recently, when protests broke out after the death of the 19-year-old Dalit victim of a brutual gangrape in Hathras district in September last year, the UP government filed 22 cases of sedition against at least 18 unidentified individuals and five known persons, including a journalist and a politician. Protests had broken out against the UP-government’s handling of the incident, including its decision to forcibly cremated the victim against her family members’ wishes in their absence.
An ‘Obnoxious’ Archaic Law, A Fresh Impetus
Section 124A was first introduced by the colonial British administration in 1870 against Indian nationalist leaders and revolutionaries, as the demand for freedom gained ground after the first war of independence in 1957.
Its most famous undertrial was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who in March 1922 faced trial for sedition for three articles he wrote in Young India, a weekly paper that he had started. At the trial, Gandhi called sedition the “prince among the sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”. It was, he added, his “privilege” to be charged under the section “as some of the most loved of India’s patriots”.
The retention of the law in an independent India had been a matter of a fierce debate—the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called the provision “obnoxious” and “highly objectionable” and had added that “the sooner we get rid of it the better”.
Over the last six years to 2020, senior leaders of the BJP, including Modi, have backed the sedition law. When the Congress’ manifesto on the eve of the 2019 general elections promised to repeal sedition, Modi mocked the move and accused the Congress of “stooping low to come back to power”.
“Congress wants to encourage those who burn the tricolour, those who do not chant Jai Hind like you and me and rather utter the divisive lines like Bharat tere tukde tukde (India, may you become pieces),” he had then said, in an election rally in Guwahati.
Days after Modi’s speech, then Union Home minister Rajnath Singh said that the party planned to “make provisions of the sedition law more stringent to check anti-national activities,” if it was elected to power for a second term.
After Modi came to power in New Delhi, the BJP’s rise across state capitals has been meteoric—from ruling seven states in 2014, it controlled 21 states by 2018.
Its rise, as we said, coincided with a similar increase in sedition cases.
For instance, Bihar, which the BJP has ruled in alliance with the Janata Dal (United) since 2005, has seen 168 cases since 2010, the highest for any State. Of these, only 30 were filed during the 20 month-long mahagathbandhan or “grand alliance” government.
Cases registered in Bihar before and after the Modi government came to power in 2014 are substantially different.
Between 2010 and May 2014, Bihar saw 58 sedition cases, the largest number, 16, filed against those accused of being Maoists and five against those smuggling counterfeit currency.
After May 2014, apart from 33 cases filed against those accused of being Maoists, the state also filed 20 cases against those who criticised the government for the CAA, against celebrities who spoke up about intolerance and hate crime and those accused of writing or chanting “pro-Pakistan” slogans.
In November 2015, Muzaffarpur Sadar police station in northern Bihar registered an FIR against actor Aamir Khan and his wife Kiran Rao, accusing them of sedition and promoting enmity between religious groups after Khan said he was “alarmed” and “depressed” over rising intolerance and “growing disquiet” in the country.
The same police station, four years later in October 2019, registered a case of sedition against 49 eminent individuals, including filmmaker Mani Ratnam, historian Ramchandra Guha, actors Aparna Sen and Konkana Sen Sharma, after they wrote to Modi criticising mob lynchings. The police later dropped the case.
Similarly, in UP, 77% of 115 sedition cases since 2010 were registered over the last three years, since Yogi Adityanath took over as the chief minister. Of these, more than half were filed on issues of “nationalism”—accusing people of making “anti-India” remarks or writing and chanting “Pro-Pakistan” slogans.
The UP government adopted a similar approach towards its critics filing 28 cases against protesters and critics critical of amended citizenship laws and handling of the gang rape in Hathras.
The UP government was particularly harsh on those criticising the government and party leaders, including Yogi and Modi. At least 18 sedition cases were filed against 149 such critics. The list of those accused in UP of sedition include former head of the Congress’ digital team Divya Spandana and Aam Aadmi Party member of parliament Sanjay Singh. Spandana tweeted a digitally-altered photo showing Modi painting the word chor (thief) on the forehead of his own wax statue. Singh conducted a survey which, he alleged, revealed that the Yogi government was working for a “particular caste”.
The only non-BJP ruled state among the top five states with the most sedition cases is Tamil Nadu, which recorded 139 cases over the last decade. However, nearly 80% of these were filed by the J Jayalalithaa-led government against those who were protesting against the construction of the Kudankulam Nuclear Plant in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district.
Violating Supreme Court Orders
In 2016, while it was hearing a petition filed by an activist, S P Udayakumar, charged with sedition for his role in the Kudankulam protest, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court, reiterated the principles laid down in Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar.
The Court said that “authorities shall be guided by the principles” laid down in the landmark 1962 judgment. A constitution bench then held that criticising the government “in strong terms,” or “very strong speech…using very vigorous words in a writing” cannot not be considered seditious.
Yet, at least 405 individuals were charged with sedition for criticising national leaders and governments over the last decade. Of these, 96% had cases registered against them after the Modi government came to power, a majority of them in states ruled by the BJP, with 149 individuals accused of making “critical” and/or “derogatory” remarks against Modi.
Similarly, in 1995 the Supreme Court in Balwant Singh & Bhupinder Singh vs State of Punjab said “casual raising of slogans” cannot be considered to be sedition unless those slogans “created any law and order problems” or intend to “incite people to create disorder”.
The 1995 judgement was related to a case where the accused had allegedly raised pro-Khalistani slogans of “Khalistan zindabad (long live Khalistan)”, “Raj Karega Khalsa (the Khalsa will rule)” and “Hinduan Nun Punjab Chon Kadh Ke Chhadange, Hun Mauka Aya Hai Raj Kayam Karan Da” (Hindus will leave Punjab, we will rule) in Chandigarh on 31 October, 1984, hours after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Despite the Supreme Court judgement, our database showed that a total of 1310 individuals, or 12% of individuals, have been charged over the last decade for shouting slogans—from hailing Pakistan to those in favour of jailed activist Sharjeel Imam.
Such trends are “frightening” and “ominous signs” for the country, according to retired Justice Lokur.
“The clear indication is that it’s not only dissent but disagreement that is now being criminalised,” said Lokur. “If disapproval becomes a crime, then it is the end of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression.”
Lubhyathi Rangarajan, who heads the sedition database, is an independent lawyer and researcher based in Delhi. Tejaswita Kharel and Harini VS are on the core team, leading research and analysis. They are final-year law students at National Law University, Delhi and KLE Society’s Law College respectively. Anant Sangal, Anasuya Nair, Ashna D, Gayatri Gupta, Priankita Das, Raghav Sengupta, Shashankaa Tewari, Shloka Suda & Sonali Chugh contributed to the data-mining process.
This research is supported by the Thakur Foundation.
(Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist from Mumbai.)