Sedition Has Become an Easy Tool to Stifle Dissent: Aakar Patel

Executive director of Amnesty International India responds to the charges of “sedition” and “promoting enmity” filed against the organisation by Bengaluru police on Independence Day.

Amnesty International India was recently booked for ‘sedition’ and for ‘promoting enmity’ by the Bengaluru police after Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) – the student wing of the RSS – lodged a complaint that anti-national songs, slogans and speeches were made at an event organised by it. The charges were filed after “azaadi” slogans were raised by some Kashmiris.

In an interview with The Wire, Aakar Patel, former journalist, writer and executive director of Amnesty International India responded to the charges and spoke about how “sedition” has become an easy tool to stifle dissent. Patel demanded that the government should respect the rights of these individuals and organisations to freedom of expression and association. Excerpts from the interview:

The “Broken Families” event was organised by Amnesty International India as part of a campaign to seek justice for human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir. Now that the organisation have been booked under charges of ‘sedition’ and ‘promoting enmity’ among others on a complaint by a right-wing group, do you think there has been an erosion of basic freedom under the Narendra Modi government?

It is true that there has been a gradual shrinking of space for dissent over the last few years. However, the sedition law has been used by various state governments to clamp down on activists who are critical of government policies. The government needs to respect the rights of these individuals and organisations to freedom of expression and association.

In hindsight, do you think you could have gone about with this event somewhat differently?

In hindsight, the event should have been longer so that all participants would have received more time.

Amnesty International India has had a history of estranged relationships with previous regimes as well. What has been the main cause?

Authorities rarely like to hear about allegations of human rights violations against them.

You also mentioned that the registration of a case of sedition shows a lack of belief in fundamental rights and freedoms in India. How in your opinion should the Congress government of Karnataka have dealt with this complaint from ABVP?

The Supreme Court has clearly ruled that for any speech to amount to sedition, it must involve an incitement of violence. The police should have taken this into account.

Did you anticipate or fear that some right-wing organisation would protest against your event? If so, why?

We had not anticipated protests of the scale that we witnessed. However, we did know that Kashmir is an emotionally charged issue for many, so we had informed the police in advance and invited them to the event to ensure the security of the invited Kashmiri families and other attendees.

Amnesty India said that “as a matter of policy” it does not take any position in favour of or against demands for self determination. Did you tell the participants at the event to only speak about the pain related to their loved ones going missing or being killed, and to refrain from making demands for azaadi?

We had informed the families that the focus of the event was on denial of justice and asked them to speak about their own personal experiences of seeking justice for human rights violations.

The allegation is that “anti-national songs” were sung, “anti-national slogans” were raised and “anti-India speeches” were made, saying Kashmir should go to Pakistan. Apart from this it has been alleged that the organisers “expressed support for terrorists, Pakistan, and ISI. They organised an anti-India, anti-national program”. What do you have to say about this?

The only discussion at the event was about allegations of human rights violations and the denial of justice to families in Kashmir. These are issues that have regularly been discussed in the media. They have been written about at length by members of parliament, politicians, judges and civil society. In July 2016, the Supreme Court, in a ruling relevant to the issues discussed at the event, stated that the armed forces do not enjoy impunity for human rights violations.

Amnesty International India had, some time ago, written to the home minister seeking repeal of the sedition law. It had stated that “Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which defines the offence of ‘sedition’ is a colonial-era relic.” You had mentioned that “Mahatma Gandhi, who was imprisoned under the law, called it ‘the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.’” Does this present case strengthen that argument for you?

Yes, the sedition law has no place in India.

On the issue of sedition, your letter had noted that “courts have ruled that any expression must involve incitement to imminent violence for it to amount to sedition. But the law has been used again and again to arrest journalists, activists and human rights defenders simply for expressing critical views.” Now that you have been booked under the charge, do you intend to fight the battle in courts till the very end?

Yes, we are cooperating with the police. The allegations in the complaint are baseless and will be proved to be so.

Amnesty had also claimed that the “sedition law is excessively vague and broad, making it an easy tool to stifle dissent and debate”. Moreover, it had observed that it “does not comply with international human rights law”. How does it violate them? You have also claimed that the sedition law “violates the right to freedom of expression under the Indian constitution. And it goes against India’s tradition of tolerance.” Do you think its repeated use is an indicator of growing intolerance in the country?

Under international human rights law binding on India, states are allowed to impose restrictions on the right to freedom of expression on grounds including ‘public order’. However, any such restriction must be demonstrably necessary and proportionate and must not jeopardise the right itself. Section 124A fails to meet this test. It is excessively broad and vague, making it an easy tool to stifle dissent.