Editor's note: The law of sedition — Section 124A of the IPC — was introduced in 1870 to curb anti-colonial sentiment. Many leaders of the Independence Movement, including Mahatma Gandhi, were tried under this draconian act. Ironically, while the British themselves have abolished the law, present-day India has discovered its many maliciously creative uses. With hardly any convictions, the act has turned out to be an instrument of political oppression.
In the second of a three-part series — exploring how the 147-year-old law has been adapted to deal with acts that are remotely anti-establishment — Firstpost meets those who have sedition cases lodged against them and examines their daily hardship.
Barhani: Every war has its casualties. The same is true of the Naxal insurgency.
In the long-drawn, low-intensity battle against the armed militants, the police occasionally invoke the law of sedition.
Firstpost's interviews with those accused of sedition and their families in Bihar's Aurangabad district indicates that while many are seemingly plotting the overthrow of government, others are simply hapless folks caught up in the crossfire.
Baban Chaudhary is one such example. He is 38-years-old but he looks 50. His wife left him and took their daughter with her. His beard is bushy. Hair is unkempt. Clothes are torn. He works at a brick kiln where no one knows his identity.
The sedition case against Baban was booked on July 19, 2014. He was a rickshaw puller who earned just enough to sustain his small family.
Baban has been accused of laying landmines and helping the Naxals attack policemen. But he says he's innocent and that the police are mistaking him for a Naxal or a Naxal sympathiser merely because he once ferried passengers who were apparently rebels.
"How can I be held responsible for who hires me and sits in my rickshaw?" he asks. "I don't know why God is punishing me and my family."
His mother, a widow, died after the police detained Baban. She died of shock, Baban claims. They performed her last rites even as he was in police custody. Baban tears up as he remembers a happier time. Despite the difficulties, he was content. He had a home. A family. But the sedition case ruined his life, he says.
"The police changed my life. I am on the run because of the police. I never imagined my wife would leave me. But it's ok. I'm happy that the police aren't hassling her and my daughter," he says. Baban seems resigned to his fate.
Having sedition charges lodged against you upends your life, Baban says. One cannot go anywhere without informing the police. Baban assumed a new identity after the police repeatedly detained him. He says that he doesn't attend court because he fears arrest but that he has been fighting to clear his name.
"I have Rs 4,700 and nowhere to go," Baban says. "I don't know what tomorrow has in store for me. I miss my family and my home. I've lost everything. I'm growing weaker and weaker. I don't know what God has planned for me."
Baban kept bringing up his family. He says all he wants is for the charges to be dropped against him so he can reunite with his wife and daughter. He says he has considered fleeing the state to start a new life elsewhere but he's afraid of being arrested by the police.
Baban insists that he would never betray the motherland. He says he has never been a Naxal handler or sympathiser.
"Can there be a worse crime than sedition? I don't know if the police will throw me behind bars or shoot me on sight! Please help me. All the charges against me are false."
Pramod Kumar was one of the co-accused in the FIR filed against Baban. He was killed in an encounter last year in Tendui village. Kumar was held in high regard by the people of the village. The Naxals are planning to build a memorial at the site where he was killed, so the rumours go.
Alok Pandey, a self-proclaimed social activist, says it is the actions of the police that compel the working men and women to align themselves with the Naxals. Only the rebel group gives them support, Alok claims. He says the police should be sensitive to the populace and not file cases and detain people indiscriminately.
While Baban evokes pity and sympathy, not all who plead their innocence come across as earnest as the rickshaw puller-turned-labourer.
The 'poor' accused
Dressed in grey trousers and a dirty half-sleeve white shirt, a shawl draped over his head and a beedi hanging between his lips, Vasudev Ravidas comes across as a man whose brash ways belie his professions of innocence. He says he has no ties with Naxals but casually addresses an acquaintance as "comrade".
Vasudev, a labourer, has been booked for giving money to Naxals and for being an informer. He denies these accusations but admits to collecting funds for a memorial to Pramod.
Vasudev is in his early 30s. He says he has no money to fight a legal battle. But he's carrying an expensive smartphone and rides a motorcycle. He gets rather agitated when this is pointed out. He calms down only after Alok, who is helping him in his legal battle and who arranged the meeting, intervenes.
Alok says Vasudev has a short fuse and that his wife left him for another man. He lives in the small village of Deora, where he is feared by all. The sarpanch ousted him from the village on at least one occasion. Vasudev has a drinking problem and is an accused in a few other cases, Alok claims. The police are hunting him. He's never appeared before the Patna High Court, where his case is being heard.
Vasudev ends the interview abruptly.
He returns just as we're getting ready to head back to Aurangabad.
"It's getting cold," Vasudev says. "Drive safe."
Something isn't right. Things feel off-kilter.
"Ignore him," Alok says. He explains away the swanky smartphone and motorcycle as having been borrowed from someone. He insists Vasudev has no earthly possessions.
Alok makes a phone call before the trip back, telling someone that we're leaving for Aurangabad and that "people" should be informed. On the way back, we change motorcycles thrice.
While Alok insists that the vehicles were running low on fuel, a quick look at the gauge indicates otherwise. Two motorcycles tail us back to Aurangabad.
The police remain unavailable for comment, despite repeated efforts to contact them.
The author is a Lucknow-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
Updated Date: Aug 22, 2017 09:27 AM