One of the laws under which human rights activist Dr Binayak Sen has been held guilty is sedition, or section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. The year 2010 has seen this law invoked by state governments on not less than five occasions, including Dr Sen’s case. In one instance, in Karnataka, the publication cited by the police had been defunct for three years.
In January 2010, Piyush Sethia, an environmental activist in Salem, Tamilnadu was charged with sedition for disrupting a government function by distributing pamphlets at a Republic Day function organised by the Salem district collector. The pamphlet, written in Tamil, questioned the displacement of lakhs of tribals due to Operation Green Hunt and the non-implementation of a Supreme Court order for the rehabilitation for villagers of 644 villages by the Chhattisgarh government.
In February the Vice President of People's Union for Civil Liberties, Karnataka Chapter (PUCL-K), Dr E Rati Rao, was issued a sedition notice by Vijayanagara police for bringing out an in-house bulletin in Kannada ‘PUCL Karnataka Varthapatra. Publication of the bulletin, which was meant for private circulation, was discontinued in September 2007.
The Free Speech Hub, a 2010 initiative of the media watchdog thehoot.org, has documented these and other cases related to Free Speech.
The controversy stirred up by speeches given by Arundhati Roy and Hurriyat leader SAS Geelani, among others, in October 2010, invited the charge of sedition. The government initially decided against initiating any criminal proceedings against the speeches, delivered at a seminar on Kashmir entitled ‘Azaadi-the only way' in New Delhi on 21 October 2010.
But the judiciary thought otherwise. After a group of Kashmiri Pandits grouped under the banner of ‘Roots in Kashmir', filed a complaint seeking registration of criminal cases against Roy-Geelani for the speeches they had delivered, a local city court on 3 November 2010 issued notice asking the Delhi Police to respond. Meanwhile, Justice Hima Kohli of the Delhi High Court entertained a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking the initiation of criminal proceedings against Roy-Gilani with regard to the same speeches and issued notice on 16 November 2010. (Read : The sedition case against Roy-Geelani: A case of the reluctant prosecution)
The Delhi Police submitted a report that the accused had made no inflammatory speeches and no offense as to sedition could be made out against Geelani, Roy and other speakers. But Navita Kumari Bagha, Metropolitan Magistrate (MM), rejected the Delhi Police report, and, going by newspaper reports, introduced a new term in the legal lexicon by labelling the police report as “weird”. The MM observed that there was prima facie cogent evidence against the accused and directed the police to file a FIR and submit a report to the Court by 6 January 2011.
On December 10 this year the police arrested a lecturer of a Government college in Srinagar for allegedly setting an exam paper filled with questions related to the recent unrest in Valley. "Noor Mohammad Bhat, a lecturer at Gandhi Memorial College, has been arrested," IGP (Kashmir range) SM Sahai said. The police termed the question paper anti-India and seditious.
Section 124 A of the IPC on sedition lays down that whoever by written or spoken words, or by signs or visible representations attempts or brings into hatred or contempt or attempts or excites disaffection towards the government established by law shall be punishable with life imprisonment. The explanations to the proviso exclude comments expressing disapprobation of government or administrative measures as long as they do not excite hatred, contempt or disaffection.
Binayak Sen’s is the fifth case, and first conviction this year. The sessions court judge who delivered the sentence on December 24 said he had been found guilty of sedition for espousing the cause of Maoist rebels and helping them.
The Free Speech Hub of theHoot.org also released a report this year on press freedom violations in the state of Orissa which record four sedition cases registered in the state between 2004-2009:
· In February 2004, Keerti Chandra Sahu, working for a Behrampur-based Orissa daily, Anupam Bharat, was charged with sedition for allegedly aiding Maoists.
· In May 2007, Khaturam Sunani, a reporter working for OTV channel, was charged with sedition for filing a report that Pahariya tribals were consuming ‘soft’ dolomite stones (known locally as jhikiri) in Nuapada district due to acute hunger.
· On December 8, 2008, Lenin Ray, editor of Nissan, a radical literary magazine in Oriya, was picked up by police after a special booklet on the Kandhamal riots entitled ‘Dharmanare Kandhamalre Raktonadhi’ (Kandhamal’s rivers of blood) was published by the magazine.
· On September 20, 2009, Laxman Chaudhary, a stringer with Oriya daily, Sambad, was arrested by Mohana police in Gajapati district and charged with sedition for possessing Maoist literature. Chaudhury had been writing about the involvement of local police in illegal drug trafficking.
Is the law on sedition being invoked a little too often for a democracy that values free speech?