Earlier this week, around 14 office bearers of the Aligarh Muslim University Students Union, both present and past, saw their names published in a First Information Report registered by the Uttar Pradesh Police. The worrying part was that the offences alleged included sedition, which is defined under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. Like every criminal offence, there are two sides to the story. Members of the AMU Students Union state that one Ajay Singh, who is also a student at the university, and stood for a post during students elections, decided to stage a dharna as a mark of protest against the AMU Students Union reaching out to the controversial Asaduddin Owaisi. Union members state that Owaisi had confirmed that he was not even visiting the university, despite which the dharna had not been called off. Only one private news channel, Republic TV (surprise surprise), chose to cover the dharna, and crew members of the news channel are alleged to have unauthorisedly entered the university premises, introducing AMU as a hotbed of terrorist activity. This is said to have resulted in heated exchanges between the crew members supported by some students on one hand, and the students union members on the other.
The FIR in question came to be registered in the evening, allegedly on the complaint of the Bhartiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), narrating a wholly different set of facts. The complaint stated that anti-national slogans were raised in the AMU campus, with the predictable “Bharat murdabad”, “Pakistan zindabad” refrain, including an altercation with crew members of Republic TV. However, two days after the registration of the FIR, media reports have indicated that charges of sedition may be dropped, due to lack of evidence in the case.
The offence of sedition was originally not a part of the Indian Penal Code, as drafted by Lord Macaulay, enacted in the year 1860. It came to be introduced by way of an amendment in the year 1898. The earliest reported case involving the offence of sedition, as available on a widely used online legal database, is the case of Emperor v. Bhaskar Balvant Bopatkar, which related to an article being published in a vernacular newspaper by the name of Bhala, entitled “A durbar in hell”, which attempted to bring into hatred or contempt, or attempted to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in British India. The following paragraph from the judgment is preternatural, given the context that it was rendered in, and the context of present day India:
“The effect of an article may not be serious to those who can reason and think, but you must remember that articles which are published in vernacular papers are not always read by reasonable men, that there is always a residuum in every community of disappointed poor men who go through life in a state of discontent and who in ignorance are often prejudiced and prepared to accept allegations made against the Government. Those who are in a state of gross ignorance might be injuriously affected by such writings.”
Are we therefore in a state of discontent, and prepared to accept allegations made against the government or the nation? It certainly seems like the generation before us, or that of our grandparents was not. Data would suggest this. So would the test of applicability of sedition rendered by courts, as evidenced by a change from mere exhortation to violence against the state being culpable, to actual violence pursuant to such a call, or a call against the state backed by an imminent threat of violence.
Present day Indians, however, are quick to offend, and even quicker to get offended. Individuals who have chosen to be offended closely around the release of a movie incessantly hound Bollywood, and quick back-room settlements almost always involving exchange of monies have quelled such discontent. From perpetrators of innocent winks that have gone viral, to creators of not entirely true-to-history depictions of historical characters, have all faced their brother Indians trying to have FIRs registered against them.
What is worrying though, is that a quick search of the word “sedition” in the same widely used online legal database, indicates that there are around 175 cases that show up prior to 1950, around 172 cases between 1950 and 2009, and 91 cases between 2010 and 2019. This means that the past nine years have seen more than half of the number of cases involving the offence of sedition as compared to over 59 years between 1950 and 2009. If these statistics are not worrying, let’s consider some more data that would alarm the armchair liberal – 58 reported cases involving sedition have been reported between 2014 and 2019. That is, the years that coincide with NDA rule at the Centre have seen more reported cases involving sedition than twenty years between 1950 and 1970 (49). One would wonder if these statistics indicate a growing trend of quick-to-offend Indians, or whether the Indian populace faces a government that holds no qualms in seeking to stifle any expressions of dissent.
The recent chargesheeting of JNU students by the Delhi Police for sedition has also been in the news because of the police not having obtained sanction of the government for such prosecution. The procedural requirement for sanction under Section 196 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, is in fact a substantive provision that often results in dropping of prosecution. In pith and substance, it means that no prosecution for offences against the state can commence before a court of law, after investigation, without the ‘go-ahead’ of the state government. The logic is simple – offences against the State must indicate that the State agrees with the report of the police – that in fact, someone has committed an offence by which the State has been aggrieved.
There exists a body of law that indicates that when judges direct registration of First Information Reports that involve offences requiring prior sanction, such sanction should be obtained prior to even the direction for registration of FIR and commencement of investigation (Anil Kumar v. MK Aiyappa, which involved sanction to prosecute a public servant). Some would say that applying the same principle to sedition would help prevent frivolous prosecutions initiated on complaints of private persons, and would end impasses such as the one between the Delhi Police and the Delhi government on the JNU sedition case. Not only has investigation in the JNU case spanned over 2 years, involving several hours of time spent by police officials, but it had also resulted in the arrest of students. The violence in the Patiala House court in February 2016 also took place on a day that the accused in the case were being produced in court.
Applying sedition to the facts that played out in AMU not only displays the pressure that members of the political party in power in the state can exert on the police, but also the wanton ease with which the police can prima facie charge a citizen for sedition. It is no joke that the offence is punishable with imprisonment for life with fine. It is a joke, however, that you can get arrested for sedition for challenging the might of the state, without the mighty state in fact believing that you have committed an offence against it.
These events are themselves a compelling case for deletion of the offence of sedition from the statute book.
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Updated Date: Feb 16, 2019 18:05:56 IST