Freedom of Expression

As Police Continue to Abuse Sedition Law, Lawyers Say Courts, Parliament Must Find Solution

The charge of sedition slapped by the Madhya Pradesh police on 15 men for allegedly celebrating Pakistan’s victory in a cricket match suggests lessons have not been learnt from the apex court order.

Credit: Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia

New Delhi: Even though the Madhya Pradesh police has dropped sedition charges against 15 Muslim men arrested for allegedly celebrating Pakistan’s victory against India in the Champion’s Trophy final and has instead booked them under Section 153 A of the Indian Penal Code for disturbing communal harmony, the issue has stirred a debate on the gross abuse of the sedition law by the authorities.

The Supreme Court, in its order last year, had cautioned the police against misuse of the sedition law and directed them to follow its earlier Kedar Nath judgment. The order had come after senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for NGO Common Cause and S.P. Udayakumar (an anti-nuclear activist against whom sedition charges had been levelled), said that there had been an increase in the number of sedition cases being filed and that the law of sedition was being grossly misused, misapplied and abused by the authorities who were not following the judgment in Kedar Nath which states that Section 124A (sedition) is only applicable where there is violence or incitement to violence.

The Supreme Court order noted: “We are of the considered opinion that the authorities while dealing with the offences under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code shall be guided by the principles laid down by the Constitution Bench in Kedar Nath Singh vs. State of Bihar case. Except saying so, we do not intend to deal with any other issue as we are of the considered opinion that it is not necessary to do so. The writ petition is accordingly disposed off.”

But the latest instance of the Madhya Pradesh police using the same sedition law to book young men for allegedly celebrating Pakistan’s victory in the match indicates that lessons have not been learnt from the apex court order.

Check the abuse of sedition law through Section 167

In such a scenario, what can the authorities do? Senior advocate Mehmood Pracha said the answer lies in booking those police officers who exceed their authority or misuse or abuse their power under Section 167 of the IPC which pertains to “public servant framing an incorrect document with intent to cause injury”.

This section states that “whoever, being a public servant, and being, as one (such public servant, charged with the preparation or translation of any document or electronic record, frames, prepares or translates that document or electronic record) in a manner which he knows or believes to be incorrect, intending thereby to cause or knowing it to be likely that he may thereby cause injury to any person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”

However, Pracha said he is not in favour of repealing the sedition law altogether. “The culprit is not the law. For tackling its misuse, provisions are available. We need to enforce these provisions,” he said.

Sedition law needs to be repealed

However, Supreme Court advocate Indira Jaising said “the entire sedition section needs to be repealed. It has no place in a country which is independent and democratic.”

Stating that while the constitutionality of the section has been challenged, what is needed is a concerted demand for the repeal of this section by reaching out to various political parties for raising the issue in the parliament. “Now is the right time to do that”, she said.

As for the authorities, she charged that they often abuse their discretion and unfortunately, the only remedy left to these people is to approach the courts. “The magistrate should release them and say that no case is made out but by then those charged for sedition have already lost their liberty. So the state and its police forces should be held responsible for this kind of abuse of law.”

Abuse of discretion by authorities

As Jaising said, in such cases where there is an abuse of discretion by the authorities, the person charged with a crime expects relief from courts. However, in some of the recent cases that came to light, the accused got no such relief while the police changed its version of the story.

In the Madhya Pradesh incident, the police have now been quoted as saying that they were dropping the sedition charge as it was “hard to prove”. While not answering why trumped up charges were thrust on the residents of Mohad town who were booked under non-bailable sections, the officer said the accused have now been charged with “disturbing communal harmony”. The only problem with this charge, as Milind Ghatwai of the Indian Express found out when he visited the village and police station:

No one heard the fire crackers either, or even the pro-Pakistan or anti-India slogans. Not even Subhash Laxman Koli, the complainant.

Nevertheless, the charge of “disturbing communal harmony” is a serious one and has been levelled to allow the accused to be held in custody. In Karnataka, where the police had arrested three persons for bursting crackers while allegedly celebrating Pakistan`s victory, the police had booked them under non-bailable sections due to which they continue to remain behind bars. The police said that the accused had hurt religious sentiments.

Serious sections imposed for only bursting crackers

The registration of a case under stringent sections does not look justified as according to a state police officer, the accused had only burst crackers on the highway between Kushalnagar and Sontikoppa. However, the officer, taking a strong view of their alleged actions said, “There was a possibility of it leading to communal tension so they were arrested.”

The action of the police in both Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka is harsher than it needed to be, according to legal experts. But in the prevailing atmosphere of vigilantism and activism, the men in khaki appear to be pandering to their political masters.

Institutions fail to prevent overreach by authorities

Even institutions that are supposed to protect the rights of the minorities and the underprivileged appear to have discarded their roles and started speaking in the voice of political leaders.

In the wake of the Pakistan match and registration of complaints in different parts of the country, National Commission for Minorities chairperson Gairul Hasan Rizvi had advocated sending those who supported Pakistan on its win to the neighbouring country. “Some people in India reportedly likened Pakistan’s victory to Eid before Eid… those who feel happy about Pakistan’s victory should go and live there, for their hearts lie in that country,” he was quoted as telling journalists in Uttar Pradesh.

Threats to wind up businesses follow allegations

The issue has also started hurting innocent Muslims and Kashmiris who have no connection with any such celebrations. In Mussoorie, the local traders, following a complaint against three boys from Kashmir – who were accused of raising pro-Pakistan slogans during the match – called for sending all the traders from the state out of the district.

This, according to news reports, has left many Kashmiris residing in the hilly district of Uttarakhand for several decades astounded. They are at a loss to understand how such a demand can be raised in the state as it remains the only home they know of. But with Uttarakhand being swept by the BJP in the assembly elections earlier this year, those issuing such directions feel emboldened.

The report had quoted Rajat Aggarwal, president of the Mussoorie Traders’ Association, stating that “only shops that have opened up “recently” were being asked to wind up. Nobody has asked older shopkeepers to leave.” But as a young businessman who had recently set up shop in the state said, “We are being asked to go. But isn’t this our country? Punish us if we are guilty but don’t let some people’s action harm all of us.”