An incident involving Amnesty International India and the ABVP has again highlighted how governments use this lawless colonial-era law
A right wing group protests against Amnesty International India in New Delhi. Photo: PTI
And so, to sedition. Matters of sedition, in case someone decides to complain against this column by invoking Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). An incident involving Amnesty International India and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) has again highlighted how governments and their handmaidens use this lawless colonial-era law.
Amnesty claims it did nothing to deserve a complaint of sedition that ABVP, a students’ organization with ties to Hindu rightwing groups, and for long, a stepping stone to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), brought against it on 15 August. From available evidence, Amnesty hosted an event in Bengaluru two days earlier to highlight human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir. It showed a documentary and a play, and hosted discussions with both Muslim and Hindu Kashmiris. Being an incendiary subject, at times things unsurprisingly got raucous, which included some Kashmiri students in the audience shouting slogans about azadi, freedom.
Bengaluru police registered a first information report, or FIR, that ABVP filed against “Amnesty International India” and “Others” (I have a copy), accusing them of misdemeanours under various provisions of IPC, including for rioting, unlawful assembly, inciting violence—and sedition. This is rubbish.
Amnesty maintains it had nothing to do with the sloganeering, and handed police video recordings of the event. At most I would mark Amnesty for showboating at a time of patriotic fervour before India’s Independence Day. If the “Others” are tracked down, they would likely run the gauntlet from harassment to eventual acquittal.
Amnesty India too has a gauntlet to run. It is seen as a pest by governments. Its recent exemplary work in the area of business and human rights, especially a damning report in July on coal mining companies treating Adivasis abysmally would hardly have endeared it to the central government, several state governments, and the private sector. Moreover, Amnesty India’s executive director Aakar Patel (a former columnist with Mint) has for long been a critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi—in particular his earlier avatar as chief minister of Gujarat, and his handling of the riots in 2002. To some, Amnesty on a spit equals rotisserie Patel.
Byplays apart, Section 124A, a device of domination by the British, should be the focus. In recent years several thousands have been inflicted by its provisions: “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…”
It is misused by all parties. For public protests against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, Tamil Nadu’s police registered 19 cases of sedition involving 8,450 people in the most ludicrous manner. Seditionists included Lourdes Swamy, a 68-year-old fisherman; his colleague Nasren; and another, Santiago Rayappan—just a tiny sample. I met many such, just people afraid of post-Fukushima dangers, and declining catches. In Jharkhand, a tribal activist against uranium mining in Jadugoda, Ghanshyam Biruli, told me of a Section 124A threat: “If you raise your voice against uranium, you will be considered a traitor to the country.”
Political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested in Mumbai in 2011 for sedition: he had illustrated how corrupt India’s politicians are. In 2003, Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia was during the tenure of a Congress government in Rajasthan hit with Section 124A, and Section 121 too, which censures against “Waging, or attempting to wage war, or abetting waging of war, against the Government of India.” Among other things Togadia had ignored orders to not distribute tridents.
In March, minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju admitted in the Rajya Sabha: “The provisions are very wide. Anyone who speaks against the government established by the law can be booked under the sedition law… Often the sedition charge is found to be violative of Article 19(1)(a)” of the Constitution, that guarantees freedom of speech and expression.
This August, his colleague Hansraj Gangaram Ahir stated in the Lok Sabha that his ministry “has written to the ministry of law and justice to request the Law Commission of India to study the usage of the provisions of Section 124A of IPC and suggest amendments.” According to another government statement, the Law Commission “has intimated that they have identified certain focus areas and formed subgroups to deliberate on such areas”. That was “intimated” in December 2014. It would help to crank it up a bit, maybe repeal the damn thing.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land.