Slapping sedition charges on people for staging a play that allegedly insulted the prime minister, raising slogans and statements shows a deliberate misinterpretation of the law with the intent to curb dissent.
The Karnataka police seems to be taking disturbingly frequent recourse to the sedition law in the wake of protests against the new citizenship law. On Thursday, it slapped sedition charges on Amulya Leona Noronha, a 19-year-old student from Chikkamagaluru, for the slogan “Pakistan Zindabad” at an anti-CAA protest meeting. Also recently, a university student from Mysuru, the headmistress of a school in Bidar and the parent of a nine-year-old studying in the same school, and three Kashmiri students of a college in Hubbali/Dharwad have been booked on sedition charges and jailed. On Tuesday, the police arrested journalist and poet Siraj Bisaralli and Rajabaxi H V, the editor of a website where a video of Bisaralli’s rendition of an anti-CAA poem at a literary meet was uploaded — both were fortunate, though, to escape sedition charges.
Many of these cases follow a pattern. Workers and affiliates of the ruling BJP file a case claiming sedition, the police make arrests under these charges, and the matter moves to the court. In some instances, local lawyers’ bodies have passed resolutions barring members from representing the accused. This dreadful pattern continues to replicate itself even though these police excesses have been called out by the courts, which have spoken up for the citizen’s right to express dissent and warned the police against attempts to stifle rights protected under Article 19 of the Constitution. This mismatch between the actions of those who interpret the law, the judiciary, and those who enforce the law, the police, is deeply troubling. The higher judiciary has been, for a long time, cautioning against invoking the sedition law on flimsy grounds. As early as in 1962, the Supreme Court had re-interpreted this colonial-era legislation and said that mere criticism of the state does not constitute sedition. Since then, the apex court has reiterated this position in case after case (Balwant Singh v. State of Punjab, Nazir Khan v. State of Delhi) — sedition charges should be applied only in the case of an act, including speeches, statements and slogans, involving incitement to violence.
Slapping sedition charges on people for staging a play that allegedly insulted the prime minister, raising slogans and statements shows a deliberate misinterpretation of the law with the intent to curb dissent. Those who wish to lean on the sedition law to bolster their hyper-nationalist sentiments must know that the Indian nation-state is not a fragile entity that will wither away in the face of dissent and criticism, but a capacious space that accommodates and welcomes both.