"Sedition charges, despite the Supreme Court"

IN Censorship | 29/10/2010
Though the government has backed down on charging Roy and Geelani with sedition, lesser-known activists in India have been charged with sedition this year. State governments have been ignoring the Supreme Court's qualifier on this law.

How freely should state governments  make use of the sedition clause of the Indian Penal Code? The charge is a serious one, but has been used freely by the law to curb civil liberties activists and journalists. In 2010 alone, two cases of sedition have been lodged against civil liberties activists, for the most frivolous of reasons. But the Supreme Court had something to say on applying this law which suggests that, when it comes to the crunch, no state government will be able to make a convincing case under section 124 A'.


In his analysis in The Times of India, Manoj Mitta had pointed out that "while upholding its constitutionality way back in 1962 in Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar, the SC read down the sedition provision, Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, to apply it only to those who misuse their freedom of speech to instigate an armed rebellion against the government."

Mitta adds, "Judging the 1898 sedition provision on the touchstone of the free speech guarantee provided by the Constitution, a five-judge bench of the SC, headed by the then CJI B P Sinha, opted for federal court approach of raising the bar for the invocation of Section 124A.

"Keeping in mind the reasons for the introduction of Section 124A and the history of sedition, the section must be so construed as to limit its application to acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder, or disturbance of law and order; or incitement to violence," the SC ruled, in a judgment that still holds the field.

On account of this judicially imposed limitation, the police cannot hope to prosecute Roy unless they are able to establish a violent intention or tendency from the tapes of the speeches she delivered recently in New Delhi and Srinagar. This may prove difficult for the police as the closest reference to violence in Roy's speeches was to the trend of stone pelting in Kashmir."

By this touchstone, the two cases of sedition registered by the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu against civil liberties activists don't have much of a change of getting a conviction. Yet the state governments persist with intimidatory use of this law.

Ironically, on Republic Day on Jaunary 26, civil liberties activist and environmentalist Piyush Sethia was arrested and charged with sedition for distributing pamphlets against Operation Green Hunt in Salem, Tamil Nadu.


Later, in February 2010, senior women’s rights activist and scientist, Dr E Rati Rao, Vice-President of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Karnataka, was charged with sedition for publishing a journal, now defunct.


Both these instances were recorded in the Free Speech Tracker. We reproduce below a summary of both cases:


The Sedition Charges against Dr. E Rati Rao

Dr E Rati Rao, a senior scientist and women’s rights activist is Vice-President of PUCL-Karnataka and Vice President of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA). She was editor of an in-house PUCL-Karnataka Kannada language bulletin (called PUCL Varthapatra) for private circulation among PUCL members. The bulletin was last published in 2007.

According to an online petition to Karnataka Chief Minister Y S Yediyurappa, an FIR lodged by police in Mysore accused Dr. Rati Rao of publishing the PUCL bulletin that is "favoring naxals and Muslims and is propagating that the police are killing innocent people in the name of encounter"; that "calls upon dalits, women, minorities, farmers and adivasis to build organizations in order to fight for their rights"; that "accuses the Sangh Parivar in Karavali (coastal Karnataka) of indulging in false propaganda and fueling communal disharmony" and "calls upon the secular forces to raise their voice against such spread of communal hate"; and "by raising such issues incite and spread intolerance, disbelief, discontent amongst the public"; that "in the name of doing good to the dalits, women, minorities, & adivasis the said bulletin is spreading false information against the casteist & communal Government…It is propagating intolerance, disbelief, and discontent amongst the Government officials."


The sections under which Dr. Rati Rao has been booked are Section 124 A (Sedition), Section 505 (False statement, rumour, etc., circulated with intent to cause mutiny or cause communal discord) and sections of the Press Act that relate to knowingly spreading false information.

The PUCL Bulletin in question had discussed the attacks on the Christian community in Karnataka and had indicted the Government for failing to do enough to protect the minority community from attack.

Dr Rati Rao is a scientist and researcher specializing in food microbiology, and retired as the Deputy Director of the CFTRI (Central Food Technological Research Institute). She has a history of several decades of democratic activism ??" first in the student movement, then in the women’s movement with the Samata Progressive Women’s Forum, Mysore since 1978 and as a prominent figure in the autonomous women’s movement right since the 1980s; and long associated with the Left and progressive movement and the human rights movement, especially the PUCL.

Activists believe that the sedition charge is an attempt to intimidate Dr. Rati Rao, who has in recent times, as National Vice President of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) been visiting Karnataka villages to organize rural poor women to fight for their rights, who was recently part of a fact-finding to expose the atrocities against Dalits in Chitradurga district of Karnataka, and who recently participated in a National Convention against Sexual violence and State Repression in Raipur, Chhattisgarh.

The sedition charge against Piyush Sethia


On January 26, this year,  environmental activist Piyush Sethia was picked up by Hasthampatti Police of Salem City and charged with Sedition.

According to a PUCL statement, he reportedly had in his possession pamphlets condemning the state sponsored Salwa Judum violence in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh state. The pamphlet pointed out that both the Central and State Governments were acting as agents of MNCs and big mining companies including Tatas, Mittals and others and had a vested interest in launching Operation Greenhunt in the tribal areas of that state. The violence let loose by state agencies had destroyed lives, killing many and making local tribals refugees in their own lands! The pamphlet called upon youth to join a cycle rally from Salem to Chennai via Sivagangai, the constituency of the Home Minister, demanding return to rule of law and constitutional values in Chhattisgarh.

The PUCL statement further said: It is absurd and incomprehensible how the material in such a pamphlet will amount to sedition. This did not bother the Salem police. Nor were they concerned that the pamphlets concerned another state.

It is very clear that the State Police do not want any type of criticism by ordinary citizens about mis-governance and abuse of power anywhere else, lest the same arise in Tamil Nadu itself! That the TN police want to crush any democratic response in the state can be seen by the fact that the Hasthampatti Police have prosecuted Piyush under sec. 124A IPC, viz., on a charge of sedition. Such a serious charge cannot have been invoked without the approval of senior police and government officials.

PUCL wishes to point out that such extreme and highhanded action of the state police is not only unwarranted and excessive but also ends up trivializing the law. Politically vindictive and repressive application of law by the police will end up in destroying people’s faith in the democratic system. The action of the police in suppressing freedom of speech and expression is a serious violation of fundamental rights and highly undemocratic. Such action needs to be condemned.

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