Clamping down on the dissenting voice

IN Media Freedom | 06/11/2010
Despite stricter judicial interpretations of sedition, dissenting voices have been prosecuted under it,
says SIDDHARTH NARRAIN in the third part of our series on sedition and the law.

While the Supreme Court’s decision lay to rest the debate on the scope and constitutional validity of the sedition law, the life of the sedition law is entangled with that of political dissent in the country. A brief search for reported High Court and Supreme Court cases on sedition gives us an indication of the kinds of situations where the sedition law is commonly used. 


For instance, in 1967, the government prosecuted Ghulam Rasood Choari, the editor of an Agra based Urdu weekly called Ehsas for exhorting the Muslims of the country, especially the Muslims of Kashmir to violence against the government and bringing the readers of the paper into ‘hatred’ and contempt and dissatisfaction with the government (Ghulam Rasool Choari v. The State 1968 CriLJ 884). 


In the specific editorial in question, Ghulam Rasood described Indian rule over Kashmir as tyrannical. It was alleged by the prosecution that this article was published during the crucial period when Kashmir was being debated in the Security Council and when the Indian Government sent a note of protest against the talks going on between Pakistan and China regarding the Sino-Pakistan agreement to locate and align their common border in the occupied areas of Jammu and Kashmir.


It is further alleged that the article was published and circulated during the critical period of Moharram in order to make a strong appeal to the Muslims and to incite communal fanaticism amongst the Muslims. The Sessions Court in Agra convicted Rasood of offences under section 124A and 505 of the IPC sentencing him to six months rigorous imprisonment.


The High Court upheld this verdict, dismissing Rasool’s appeal, and the appeal of the UP government to enhance his punishment.


In 1974, just before the Emergency declared by the Indira Gandhi government,  the Andhra Pradesh government confiscated copies of the left wing journal ‘Srujana’, a literary monthly journal published in Telugu from Hanamkonda, saying that it contained objectionable poems and blank verses referred to in the schedule below, which is calculated to bring into hatred and contempt and excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India and is prejudicial to maintenance of harmony and publication of which is punishable under Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code (P. Hemalatha v. The Govt. of Andhra Pradesh AIR 1976 AP 375).


Prior to May 1974 the said journal was being edited, printed and published by P. Varavara Rao for 'Sahithree Mitrulu'. In December, 1973, Varavara Rao was detained under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, one of the grounds of the detention being that he has printed certain poems in the various issues of the said journal which were calculated to incite disaffection against Government and that he preached the violent overthrow of the Government through his speeches and publications.


This order of detention was challenged in the A.P. High Court in 1973,  the order of detention was set aside, the writ petition was allowed and the petitioner was released. Thereafter, in May, 1974 Varavara Rao was arrested in connection with what is known as 'Secunderabad Conspiracy Case'. Since the arrest Varavara Rao’s wife, P. Hemalatha had been acting as editor, printer and publisher of Srujana.


While dismissing an appeal against the order, the High Court held that a mere criticism or denunciation of the Government established by law is not objectionable:


"Citizens are certainly entitled to express their grievances and to endeavour to get them redressed through lawful means. However, if these attempts or exhortations bring the established Government or tend to bring it into hatred and contempt, they certainly come within the ambit of sedition as stated in Sec. 124-A, I.P.C. The test that should be applied is to find out whether any article or articles intend to have the effect of creating feelings of hostility towards Government and to excite disaffection."


The Court’s decision came after the infamous Internal Emergency was declared by the Indira Gandhi Government at the Centre. The judges while upholding the order of confiscation, observed that in a situation of serious internal distrubances, the right to freedom of speech and expression had to be curtailed.


Sedition charges were been levelled in 1992, PMK leader S. Ramadoss was charged and convicted sedition charges along with charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), for publicly supporting the LTTE (Ramdoss and Others v. State of Tamil Nadu and Another 1993 CriLJ 2147). This happened soon after the LTTE was proscribed as a terrorist organsiation by the Central Government through the UAPA.


In the current climate of an escalating war against the Naxalites in Central India, the rise of mass non violent protest in Kashmir, continuing insurgencies and calls for self determination in the North East, and the state’s war against terrorism, the space for dissent has shrunk drastically.


Section 124-A has been invoked against a number of civil rights activists and critics of the state across the country. The more prominent of these include the charges against Dr. Binayak Sen in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, who as a part of his mandate in the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Chhattisgarh, criticised the state government for its pro-mining and anti-Naxal policies.


Dr. Sen was slapped with charges ranging from treason to sedition, and kept in Raipur jail for over a year without being granted bail. His case received world wide attention, and he was granted bail in the Supreme Court, after a national and international campaign for his release. More recently, sedition charges were slapped against environmentalist Piyush Sethia in Salem, for distributing pamphlets condemning state-sponsored violence in Chhattisgarh.


Similarly sedition charges were filed against Dr. Rati Rao, editor of the PUCL-Karnataka’s Kannada in-house publication Varthapatra, for criticising the communal agenda of the Sangh Parivar in coastal Karnataka and questioning extra judicial killings by the Karnataka police.


However, it is crucial to remember that the judicial interpretation of the sedition law, however, protects the space for dissent, whetever the political climate might be. This explains why the Central Government is reluctant to use the sedition law against Syed Geelani, Varavara Rao, Arundhati Roy and others for their participation in the Azadi conference.


As for the trigger happy members of the BJP and others who have been calling for the sedition law to be invoked in this instance, they could learn from the arguments of Asaf Ali, Sheikh Abdullah’s lawyer in his 1946 sedition case:


Sedition is rather an all embracing offence in so far as the law is concerned, but it is very dangerous to deal with popular persons under this section. Every time you deal with them under this section, instead of remedying the evil, you increase its dimensions, because the conviction of such popular leaders laeads to movements which have very far reaching repercussions.


After the arrest of Congress Working Committee members in 1942 everywhere you saw ‘QUIT INDIA’ in the unlikeliest of places; in public spaces, on public buildings, on trains, in mess-rooms, and even in barracks and schools, this was happening all over India.


It is easy to confine popular leaders, but it is difficult to extinguish the fires such convictions light in the hearts of the masses. Before Sheikh Abdullah is convicted these questions must be considered very carefully and weighed in the spirit of grave responsibility because of the repercussions which are inevitable. The mischief of conviction is greater than even the mischief caused by the alleged speeches or rather by the arrest of the accused. The remedy sought is worse than the disease.


(Siddharth Narrain is a legal researcher with the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore.)

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