While granting bail to the 22 year old climate activist Disha Ravi in the toolkit case, Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana made some pointed observations and dropped a timely reminder to the Indian state. One such quote from the judgment which stands out goes something like this: “Citizens are conscience keepers of government in any democratic nation. They cannot be put behind bars simply because they choose to disagree with the state policies. The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments.” If you were to take my opinion, this quote must be put in a golden frame and hung on the walls of all police stations and particularly, in the PMO and all CMOs across the country. After all, both the police as well as the political masters they function under routinely slap citizens with sedition cases for mere criticism of the governments and political leaders. The frame on the wall would be in the august company of Gandhiji who called 124A (the IPC section dealing with sedition) as “the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.”
The ease and frequency with which sedition and other draconian laws like the UAPA and NSA are invoked today reflects an increasingly thin-skinned and insecure Indian state. As comedian Kunal Kamra said in his much celebrated defence against contempt charges, taking offence is now akin to a national indoor sport. From jokes that were never said, innocuous ad commercials, fictional movies and web series, to journalists daring to report the other side of the story- all face the fury of hurt sentiments. When the British included 124A in the IPC in 1870, they wanted to rein in Indian nationalists and their clarion call for independence. That governments over the years have chosen to retain and misuse the same law to muzzle voices of criticism and dissent is both ridiculous and unpatriotic. Never mind that our colonial masters have revoked the law on sedition in their own country in 2010.
Statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) puts the frivolous misuse of these laws into perspective: Cases registered under 124A or sedition jumped from 35 in 2016, 56 in 2018, to 96 in 2019 whereas the conviction rate dropped from 33.3% to a mere 3.3% during the same period. Similarly, between 2016 and 2019, a total of 5,922 individuals were arrested under UAPA but only 132 were convicted. The dismal rate of conviction points to loopholes in the investigation and a failure to back charges with evidence. It is not that our men and women in uniform lack legal literacy but as is often the case in India, they receive unwritten instructions from the powers that be. The idea then is not to punish but to harass free and critical minds and fix a cost to dissent. Sedition, for instance, is a cognisable and non-bailable offence with lifetime imprisonment as maximum punishment. An accused can be arrested without a warrant and deprived of a government job. Similarly, UAPA allows detention without charges for a period of 180 days whereas NSA for 12 months. These stringent provisions turn the dictum of “bail is the rule, jail is the exception” on its head thus, giving extraordinary powers to the state. Add to this the trend of media trials and the process becomes the punishment.
And so a Dr. Kafeel Khan slapped with NSA spends 10 months in prison for a speech that the Allahabad High Court found “a call for national integrity and unity among the citizens”. A young college girl and climate activist spends 10 days in the dreaded Tihar jail for what a Delhi court found as “scanty and sketchy” evidence. A comedian spends over a month in prison for jokes that he did not even say. Young students and activists charged with UAPA continue to languish in prison for allegedly conspiring anti-CAA protests and the riots in the national capital last year.
But history tells us that those who insulate themselves from criticism hasten their own downfall. They establish an echo chamber where they hear what they want to hear. Disconnecting from the reality doesn’t alter the reality after all. If anything, it leaves you unprepared for a looming disaster. The British had all the resources at their disposal yet they couldn’t stop India from being free. Their repression only inspired more Indians to take on the oppressor instead of fearing the oppressor. If the ruling dispensation believes that it can intimidate young voices, it is living in a la-la land. Police sticks and incarceration will only harden their resolve to fight tooth and nail and safeguard the promises made in the Constitution.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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