How the sedition law has been used against citizens: Four personal journeys - Hindustan Times
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How the sedition law has been used against citizens: Four personal journeys

May 12, 2022 11:37 PM IST

According to Kapil Sabil, the lawyer representing the petitioners, there were 800 sedition cases across India and 13,000 people are in jail

Protesting a nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu? Attending the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) dharna in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh? Holding up a “Free Kashmir” poster? Enjoying a game of cricket in which Pakistan defeats India? Calling out corruption in a cartoon? Any of these was enough for the State to slap a case of sedition and label hundreds as ‘’anti-national”. Over decades, the law became a powerful political weapon to silent dissent.

The Supreme Court on Thursday put a hold on Section 124A, till the controversial law is reviewed by the Centre. But scores have been singed and have ended up spending a part of their life in jail. The incarceration has taken a psychological toll on victims and their families. (AFP) PREMIUM
The Supreme Court on Thursday put a hold on Section 124A, till the controversial law is reviewed by the Centre. But scores have been singed and have ended up spending a part of their life in jail. The incarceration has taken a psychological toll on victims and their families. (AFP)

The Supreme Court on Thursday put a hold on Section 124A, till the controversial law is reviewed by the Centre. But scores have been singed and have ended up spending a part of their life in jail. The incarceration has taken a psychological toll on victims and their families.

According to Kapil Sabil, Congress leader and lawyer representing the petitioners, there were 800 sedition cases across India and 13,000 people are in jail. The law – largely used to quell protests and criticisms of the government – has been used by successive political governments. During Manmohan Singh’s time, it was invoked after civilians protested outside the site of a nuclear plant in Kudankulam and slapped on alleged “Maoist sympathisers.” The Narendra Modi government and various Bharatiya Janata Party-led state governments have used sedition – particularly in Uttar Pradesh – against CAA protesters.

HT spoke with four individuals, to trace their personal journeys. They are relieved by the SC stay on the controversial law, even though their cases are still pending in courts of law.

Khaja Peer

The 25-year-old freelance photographer was sitting in his studio at Hosepete in Karnataka when the police knocked on his door on December 25, 2015, and asked him to accompany them. His crime: He had allegedly distributed a pamphlet, asking for Hindus to be taught a lesson for atrocities against Muslims.

The pamphlet – which had Peer’s name on it – led to tension in the town. Before he knew it, stone pelting started and a curfew was imposed.

“Before I opened my studio, I worked as a local journalist and had contacts in the police, but no one was willing to listen to me,” he says. He claims he had no knowledge of the pamphlet or its contents but an FIR was filed against him, initially under sections 153A and 120B.

The tension continued in Hosepete for two days and Peer’s studio was burnt down. His parents, wife and children had to flee their home.

Peer spent 62 days in judicial custody and was granted bail after the police failed to produce a charge sheet within the stipulated 60-day period.

Two years later – when the charge sheet was filed – he was shocked to find that he had also been accused of sedition.

“There are no eye witnesses. Nothing was found from my home or studio to link me to the pamphlet. The charge sheet does not even answer the question of where the pamphlet was printed. No link has been established and I have lost seven years of my life,” he says.

His cameras and computer were destroyed when his studio was burnt down and he had clients screaming for photos they had commissioned.

“I had to start from scratch. My father was a flower seller and we had no savings.” He is slowly rebuilding his life and puts aside money every month for his lawyer. He will now seek legal opinion of what the Supreme Court’s decision means for him.

Tahir Madni

Tahir Madni, an Islamic scholar, runs a madrasa in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh. He is also the general secretary of Rashtriya Ulema Council, and contested the assembly elections in 2012 but lost.

The Ulema Council has a single-point agenda. He says: “Justice for all. Hindus and Muslims are all victims of injustice at the hands of the powerful. The Constitution is the foundation of our country and our unity and strength depends on it”.

He was caught in the crosshairs on February 4, 2020, when he was called by the administration to help break up a Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, protest by a group of women in Azamgarh’s Bilariyaganj. “I spoke to them and they said they will leave after the morning namaaz, but the police did not want the protest to continue overnight.”

The Maulana, who was called in to defuse the protest, ended up being booked for sedition, along with 39 others. They had to all spend the next four months in jail. “We were all kept in one barrack and many were daily wage earners,” he says.

Madni, a 62-year-old, heart patient, was 15 kms away from the protest site when he got a call from the administration seeking his help. He says he tried speaking to the women, but couldn’t force them because, after all, they were only exercising their democratic right by protesting. The women had assured him they would leave after morning prayers but the police intervened at 3 am.

According to the FIR filed the next morning, Madni led the protest and “put up women and kids at the forefront.” The FIR also accused him and the others of chanting anti-national slogans and saying “unspeakable things about Hindu religion and the PM and UP chief minister…They created an atmosphere of terror and chaos.”

The police claimed Madni was leading the protests but videos viewed by HT confirm that the Maulana was appealing to the protesters while standing next to the police.

Madni finally got bail from the Allahabad high court, four months later. He proved, through his lawyer, that he had in fact, planned to organise protests against the CAA, but postponed the plan, not once, but twice – on December 23, 2019, and January 4, 2020, – because the administration told him that the atmosphere was sensitive.

Madni is clear. He will not instigate protests. “It is against my beliefs,” he says, welcoming the apex court’s decision.

Aseem Trivedi

A cartoonist by profession, Aseem Trivedi, has travelled a long distance. From being booked under the controversial law in 2012 in Mumbai, where the Congress was in power in the state and the Centre, he became a co-petitioner with the Editors Guild of India, to appeal the law -- that snatched his freedom of expression – in the Supreme Court.

Trivedi was 25 when he was dubbed an “anti-national” by the Mumbai Police in January 2012. His cartoons had been displayed at the Bandra-Kurla Complex where thousands had gathered to support Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption Movement.

The police had received a complaint from a private individual, Amit Katanavare, asking them to register an FIR. The letter was forwarded to the directorate of prosecution for legal opinion and what followed was a freezing of Trivedi’s liberties.

The Mumbai Police sent a team to his house in Kanpur, but since he was away in Delhi, the police took his father to the police station for questioning.

Trivedi says he couldn’t believe that cartoons could invoke the stringent provisions under 124 A. He decided to go to Mumbai and surrender. “I acknowledged that I had drawn the cartoons and decided that I would neither hire a lawyer, nor apply for bail.”

An independent lawyer filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court and Trivedi was released after spending four days in custody. The division bench which heard his case observed that while his cartoons were full of anger and disgust – and lacked wit and sarcasm – the same could not be used to encroach upon his freedom of speech and expression.

The stigma, however, remains, says Trivedi. He has not drawn cartoons since them and is shunned by publications. He has now joined an NGO that works in the field of human rights. “I have to keep the kitchen fires burning,” he says.

The charges of sedition were dropped but in 2017, the Mumbai Police filed a second charge sheet under the National Emblem Act. The hearings are ongoing and if found guilty, Trivedi could spend three years in jail.

For now, he is relieved with the apex court’s order stalling the sedition law. “It has never happened before. Such criminal laws have never been stayed.”

SP Udayakumar

Environmental activist SP Udayakumar, who spearheaded the protests against the setting up of a nuclear plant in Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu in 2011, is mentioned in 300 FIRs and charged under several sections including for sedition. The Tamil Nadu government headed by J Jayalalithaa swooped down on villages are filed FIRs against 9,000 people at the time.

Ten years later, the cases have still not been charge sheeted. “Twenty of us were booked under sedition and my passport was impounded,” says Udayakumar, who also had a lookout notice issued against him.

“What is wrong with peaceful protests? How can a sedition case be made out against us? The charge is serious but governments have made a joke out of it,” he says.

He has got used to living under surveillance but the sedition sword hangs on his head. “What do I do about the stigma?” he asks. The answer may lie in the review process the Central government has promised.

According to the Supreme Court, the states should desist filing fresh sedition cases till the law is reviewed. The Centre, after supporting the law, said a day later that it was willing to review it. The questions which remain now are: Will the law be defanged, or will it be scrapped altogether?

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