The Supreme Court of India has on Wednesday May 11 put the law of Sedition (Section 124A of Indian Penal Code) in abeyance. A three Judge Bench lead by Chief Justice of India N V Ramana has directed that all pending trials, appeals, and proceedings with respect to the charge framed under Section 124A be kept in abeyance till the central government completes the promised exercise to reconsider and re-examine the provision. The Bench further said that it would be appropriate that Centre and States do not register any FIR under this law.

There has been several demands to abolish the sedition law which was a colonial baggage. It was made to suppress Indian freedom movement. The demand to abolish it had increased in Modi rule since 2014 as its usage increased manyfold but conviction rate did not increase which means the law has been invoked by police in BJP ruled states without substantial grounds only to curb dissent. Journalists, activists, students, tribals, have all been charged with sedition for the flimsiest reasons which would boggle any mind. A journalist in Gujarat was charged with sedition for merely reporting that the Gujarat Chief Minister is going to be changed. Young students have been charged with sedition for something as simple as listening to a certain kind of music. This mindless invocation of Sedition laws continued in last 8 years even though Supreme Court verdict exists that even the extreme act of raising slogans like “Khalistan Zindabad” is not sedition unless a specific call to revolt against government by violent means is given. Ignoring this important nuance, police under BJP regimes across India have been harassing people with this law.

The issue became so political in last few years that Indian National Congress party in its 2019 manifesto promised to abolish Section 124A and make bail easier by implementing the ‘bail rule jail exception‘ policy. However, the move was quickly mocked by Prime Minister Modi. He made it about Hindu Muslim and claimed in a poll speech in UP that “they (Muslims) will do ‘galat kaam’ to your women daughters but Cong is making a law that will give them bail easily.” In June 2020, BJP’s Vineet Goenka called for mass filing of cases against twitter on charges of sedition against its public policy.

Finally, a good news that the law has been put on hold. Below is some of my research notes prepared during the Farmer’s protest for a story I filed for National Herald. You can also download this white paper on sedition law in India, journalist’s arrests and farmers protests from here:

Sedition Law In India, Farmers Protests of 2020-2021 And Series of FIRs Against Journalists: An Overview with Voices

Law of Sedition                                

The law of sedition first emerged in the late 16th century during the reign of Queen Elizabeth in England to protect the absolute authority of the Monarch. It was brought to India by the British colonial rulers to control Indian freedom movement. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Annie Besant, the Ali Brothers, Maulana Azad, Gandhi are some of the prominent leaders of the independence movement who faced criminal charges under this law during the British time.

In 2009 by the Coroners and Justice Act, offences of sedition and seditious libel; the offence of defamatory libel; and the offence of obscene libel were abolished in England.

While enacting the abolishing Act Claire Ward, Britain’s then Justice Minister said that Sedition and seditious and defamatory libel are arcane offences which has no place in a world where freedom of speech is accepted as a right and seen as the touchstone of democracy. He also acknowledged the impact of a colonial era law in a democratic nation and the role Britain should play in promoting free speech. “Existence of Sedition law in England is used as a justification for the retention of similar laws in other countries which are actively used to suppress political dissent and restrict press freedom,” he said.

Sedition law in India

Unfortunately, India has not only retained the law till date, but the Modi regime has also weaponized the law much more often compared to previous governments and used it to suppress all forms of dissent. According to NCRB’s 2019 report there was an 165% jump in case of Sedition cases in 2019 and a 33% jump in cases under the UAPA laws, the other draconian law which has been used to suppress dissent by the current regime.  

Indian Penal Code defines Sedition under Section 124A IPC as: “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 in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which a fine may be added; or, with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added; or, with fine.”

During the Constitutional Assembly debates K. M. Munshi argued for deletion of Sedition from the Constitution which was unanimously accepted. On December 10, 1948 K. M. Munshi moved his amendment to draft Constitution to delete the word ‘sedition’ and use a much better phraseology, viz., ‘which undermines the security of, or tends to overthrow, the state’. “The object is to remove the word ‘sedition’ which is of doubtful and varying import…” he said.

The provision have since then been challenged in Courts time and again and though it was upheld by Supreme Court. Higher judiciary has repeatedly affirmed that Sedition should not be invoked easily unless a range of conditions are fulfilled. Supreme Court in Balwant Singh vs State of Punjab judgment said that “casual raising of slogans, once or twice by two individuals alone cannot be said to be aimed at exciting or attempt to excite hatred or disaffection by the government.”

Yet the law has been repeatedly invoked by various BJP ruled States against artists, journalists, activists, liberal intellectuals, thinkers, students, even doctors and other ordinary citizens for acts like making a cartoon, raising slogans, giving a speech, or making social media posts. In January 2020 JNU student Sharjeel Imam was charged with sedition. Following which a few other youth activists who raised slogans in support of him and seeking his release were also charged with sedition.

Sedition cases against tribal community

Jharkhand police filed FIRs against more than 10,000 Adivasis in the Khunti district of the state for participating in the Pathalgadi movement against the government for their land rights, between June 2017 and July 2018, reported. 19 FIRs were lodged that accused 11,200 of disturbing public order, while 14 FIRs accused more than 10,000 people of sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code.

Cases of sedition during Modi regime up, but conviction rate low.

Between 2016 and 2019, the number of cases filed under Section 124-A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) increased by 160% while the rate of conviction dropped to 3.3% in 2019 from 33.3% in 2016, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

Farmers Protests: Journalist facing sedition charges

Most recently, during the Farmers Protest, FIRs were filed in five states against some of India’s leading veteran journalists Rajdeep Sardesai, Zafar Agha, Mrinal Pande, Vinod K Jose Paresh Nath, Anant Nath, along with Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, charging them with sedition and other criminal offences for their reportage on the death of a protestor Navreet Singh. The cause of death of the protestor was not immediately clear and misleading reports emerged from various sources which have been labelled as seditious in the FIRs. In a fast-developing story journalistic mistakes happen and every journalist immediately issue corrigendum and clarifications but it cannot be said that a mistaken reporting is a criminal act that too such serious offence of section.

One of the journalists facing charges unwilling to be identified said: “We reported what farmer protestors claimed. When police gave us CCTV evidence, we also reported what they claimed and in fact gave the police version more credence. If that is sedition, then God help us.”

Journalism scholars say that journalistic errors are not same as fake news or other conspiratorial offences.

According to Lívia Vieira Brazilian journalist and academic at UFBA, “Conceptually the journalistic error is not intentional. This is something that can happen in journalistic practice, often by lack of verification procedures (as it was in this case), other times by a source misunderstanding, etc.”

Other criminal charges on journalists

Apart from sedition journalists are also being increasingly charged under various other criminal laws like UAPA, Criminal Defamation, Public Mischief, Obstruction Spreading enmity among communities etc for simply doing their job of reporting.

Freelance journalist Mandeep Punia was arrested by the Delhi police for “obstructing public servant in discharge of public functions”, “assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty”, and “voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servant from his duty.” According to reports a scuffle broke out between him and cops while covering the farmers protests.

Senior journalists say it is natural for field reporter to have heated arguments with police while covering violent situations. Veteran Journalist Seema Mustafa said, “We have grown in journalism fighting the police to get through security barriers. That was part of our job in the field. Questioning them, pushing through the security to be as close to the scene of action as possible, as that is what journalism is all about. To witness and report and not rely on hearsay. In the process we had strong altercations indeed fights with the cops but at the end of the day both sides smiled and moved on. As we recognised we both were doing our duty and being at the opposite ends it  was but natural given the nature of our jobs. The cops duty was to stop us, ours was to get through and the clash was inevitable. So having spent decades in conflict I just can’t see how this becomes sedition or obstruction or invites criminal charges? Even the cops who were at the helm then would agree as they never slapped with any such case as our relations were marked with respect and tolerance.”

Condemnation from various media bodies and civil societies

Several media bodies have come together to condemn the FIRs against the leading journalists during farmers protests. The nation is witnessing “undeclared emergency” said the media bodies in a joint press meeting by the Press Club of India (PCI), the Editors’ Guild of India, the Press Association, the Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC), the Delhi Union of Journalists and the Indian Journalists Union.

Statement of condemnation also made by NBSA, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Indian Newspaper Society.

Statement by CHRI:

Laws such as sedition and criminal defamation have no place in a nation committed to democratic practices. The sedition cases against the journalists should be withdrawn. India should commit to revisiting, reviewing and repealing these archaic laws, rooted in a colonial past. The government must ensure protection under law for journalists who face harassment and threats.

Statement By NBSA:

“To construe the reporting on one incident as an intent on the part of the journalists to incite violence, or as an offence, is like shooting the messenger. Also worrisome are the provisions under which the FIRs have been filed – ranging from sedition to harming national integrity and promoting communal disharmony. Weaponising archaic laws such as Sedition to stifle journalists negates the founding principles of our democracy that recognises the rights of news media to report without fear or favour. Laws such as Sedition are also increasingly being used to impede the functioning of a free press.

Statement by Indian Newspaper Society

The president of the Indian Newspaper Society, L Adimoolam, has appealed to the Governments of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, urging them to allow the press to operate freely during the ongoing farmers’ protest.

Other FIRs recently on other journalists:

  • 9 journalists charged nationwide since Jan 28, 2021: Statement of Indian Women’s Press Corps, Press Club of India and Press Association against the unconscionable behaviour against journalists (Seema Chisti Tweeted).
  • FIR was filed against The FIRs founder editor Siddharth Varadarajan under sections 153-B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration) and 505(2) (statements conducing to public mischief)
  • An FIR was filed by J&K Police against The Kashmir Wallah under the above mentioned sections for a story on how the army allegedly forced a Shopian school to hold a Republic Day function.
  • 3 Kanpur journalist charged booked for a report on a Yoga event at a government school where they alleged that children were shivering in cold. They are charged with public mischief.

Manipuri journalist Kishore Chandra Wangkhem repeatedly thrown in jail under sedition charges:

  • November 2018 for Facebook posts that criticised Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh
  • In September 2020, he criticised Manipur’s titular king after he was elected to Rajya Sabha as a BJP nominee
  • back in jail once more in May 2021 after he posted on Facebook in the wake of the state BJP chief’s death that “cow dung and cow urine didn’t work”.

13 Saket PG College students there for raising “azaadi [freedom]” slogans on December 16 “After an investigation into sedition charges, they have been dropped against students as no evidence was found to substantiate them,” said Ashutosh Mishra, Ayodhya’s Kotwali police station in charge.

Sedition Charges Slapped Against DMC Chief Zafarul Khan For His ‘Hindutva Bigots’ Post on Social Media. In a long social media post he posted on April 28, Khan had warned the “Hindutva bigots”, saying that Indian Muslims have not complaint to the Muslim world about the “lynchings” and “riots” in India.

Siraj Bisaralli, the journalist-poet booked for reading a poem with critical comments on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) at a cultural festival in Koppal. Not sure if he is booked under sedition or other charges in IPC.

Disha Ravi booked and arrested in sedition charges for editing an online Google document commonly labelled as ‘toolkit’

Other cases include:

In Bihar, Sharjeel Imam, Indian Muslim rights activist was arrested & charged with sedition for inflammatory speech against CAA and NRC in Aligarh University in January 2020.

In Uttar Pradesh, 57 Kashmiri students were booked for cheering for Pakistan during a cricket match in 2014.

Kovan, a singer, was arrested for sedition in 2015 for uploading defamatory electronic content against the former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa. He was granted bail later.

Kanpur-based cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was booked for sedition during Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption rally in Mumbai in 2011.

Binayak Sen, a public health expert based in Chhattisgarh, was booked for sedition for allegedly supporting Maoists in 2010. He was sentenced to life imprisonment by Raipur sessions court but was eventually granted bail in 2011, by the Supreme Court.

At least 233 people were slapped with the charge of sedition for their alleged anti-national activities in the last five years, according to 2020 data by National Crime Records Bureau.

Going back to the sedition case of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Justice Arthur Strachey of the Mumbai High Court told the jury that sedition in India means the absence of affection towards the government.