fter the Supreme Court iterated in its ruling June 3 that sedition charges can’t be slapped on citizens to muzzle free speech that is not intended to incite violence or disrupt public order, it was expected the Centre would exercise utmost caution in applying the British era, anti-democratic, colonial law. But it seems not to have paid heed to anything. Journalists and citizens hailed the apex court verdict quashing sedition charges against journalist Vinod Dua by a BJP leader from Himachal Pradesh for making comments critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Central government. A three-judge Bench gave its ruling in the light of a verdict by a five-judge Bench of the apex court nearly 60 years ago in the Kedar Nath Singh case that “allegedly seditious speech and expression may be punished only if the speech is an incitement to violence or public disorder.”
In 1953 Kedar Nath Singh, a member of the Forward Communist Party from Bihar, got into trouble after he took on the ruling Congress during a rally at Begusarai, where he said, “Today, the dogs of CBI are loitering around Barauni [in Begusarai]. Many official dogs are sitting even in this meeting. The people of India drove out the British from the country and elected these Congress goondas to the gaddi. As we drove out the British, we shall strike and drive out these Congress goondas as well.” For this he was charged with sedition. However, in 1962 the Supreme Court five-judge bench gave the ruling vindicating the right to criticise government actions for public good.
Instead of cautiously weighing the merit of the case, the Lakshadweep Police booked filmmaker Aisha Sulthana under the sedition law following a complaint by the BJP Lakshdweep unit president C Abdul Khader over her remarks in a television debate against the administrator of the smallest Union Territory. Aisha had criticised the controversial decisions of the administration, cleared at the behest of its acting administrator, Praful Khoda Patel, a former minister of the Narendra Modi cabinet of Gujarat.
She termed Khoda the BJP’s ‘bio-weapon’ to articulate what she said was the anger of the people of the islands at the measures that threaten to undermine their socio-cultural fabric.
The Editors’ Guild expressed concern June 14 over the alarming tendency of the Centre and state governments to target journalists critical of government actions and charge them with sedition cases. The Guild expressed shock over the Uttar Pradesh Police’s approach in handling the case of TV journalist Sulabh Srivastava who was mysteriously killed after his expose of local liquor mafia. He had informed the administration of his fears of being shadowed by criminals. But, the police did nothing to protect him and passed off his death as the result of an accident. Of course, it is pointless talking about UP Police after what it has done in the case of Kerala journalist Kappan Siddiqui who has been charged and imprisoned since long for his efforts to report on the brutal Hathras rape and murder case.
Time and again the country is witnessing how the dispensation at the Centre and some BJP-ruled states have been framing charges under draconian laws, including the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), against people raising their voices against repressive actions by the government. Unfortunately, in such cases the lower courts are quickly giving orders that the government desires. Many of these decisions of the subordinate judiciary are subsequently getting dismissed by the higher courts as bad in law or not sustainable. Coincidentally, the Delhi High Court granted bail June 15 to student activists Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal and Asif Iqbal Tanha in the main northeast Delhi riots conspiracy case filed under the stringent provisions of the UAPA. The order of release from jail of Devangana and Natasha, in the meantime, has been deferred since the High Court has sought verification report by Wednesday. The observation, however, of the Bench of Justices Siddharth Mridul and AJ Bhambhani while granting bail brings out eloquently the shameful and pernicious application of harsh legal provisions by different government agencies. The judges said: “We are constrained to express, that it seems that, in its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the State, the line between the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred. If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy.” The Court further stated: “The right to protest is not outlawed and cannot be termed as a ‘terrorist act’ within the meaning of the UAPA”
Jamia Millia Islamia University student Asif Iqbal Tanha had challenged a trial court’s October 26, 2020 order dismissing his bail application on the ground that he allegedly played an active role in the entire conspiracy with reasonable grounds for believing the allegations to be prima facie true. Tanha’s lawyers argued in the High Court he had not even been present in Delhi during the riots and hadn’t visited any of the protest sites where rioting and violence occurred. There was no physical evidence connecting Tanha to the riots or to allegations of any funds being received by him for terrorist activities.
Lakshadweep, on the other hand, is in turmoil with protests by the people under the banner of Save Lakshadweep Forum (SLF) observing ‘Black Day’ June 14 when the administrator arrived there. A group of 93 former civil servants wrote to the Prime Minister urging him not to give effect to the administrator’s skewed and communally sensitive plans that will hurt the interests of the islands’ population of over 64,000. Nearly, 96 per cent of the people are Moslems and one of the controversial fiats targets eating of beef. The acting administrator’s plan of introducing the Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR), the Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation (commonly known as PASA or the Goonda Act elsewhere), and the Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation (LAPR) and an amendment to the Lakshadweep Panchayat Regulations have generated widespread anxiety on the island.
The Centre is maintaining a studied silence on these controversial measures lending credence to the suspicion that those peaceful islands are being transformed into a laboratory of loot of their natural resources by business interests in the name of development.