Manufacturing Sedition: Amnesty Controversy and Beyond

Mahtab Alam

Let me start this article with the disclaimer that till 30th of June this year, I was working with Amnesty International India as a senior campaigner and hence am quite aware of Amnesty’s position on Kashmir, among other things. However, this has not been written in the capacity of someone who had previously worked with Amnesty or as their spokesperson, but as an activist who works on issues of human rights and as also someone who was present at the event held on 13th August at the United Theological College, Bangalore.

amnesty abvpAmnesty International India through its public statements has made it fairly clear that none of its employees shouted any slogan at any point, let alone raised any that were ‘anti-India’, or gave a call for Aazadi as alleged by ABVP. As someone who was present in the audience, I completely agree with their statement. This then brings us to the question that were no slogans like “Hum Kya Chahate Aazadi”, raised? No, I am not saying that either. There is no denying the fact that slogans were indeed raised, but it would be unfair to say that they were raised by only one ‘group’ (read Young Kashmiri—Muslims) as widely reported by media and claimed in the complaint.

In fact, the sloganeering was started by the very ‘group’ (Kashmiri Pundits and ABVP/Bajrang Dal activists) which was agitated with the idea of having such an event. From the beginning itself, they tried interrupting the event. And when MC Kash (Roushan Ilahi) started performing, they boycotted it and started shouting slogans like “Bharat Mata Ki Ja” and “Indian Army Zindabad” while leaving the hall. It was only towards the end of the event, when MC Kash’s performance was abruptly stopped due to pressure from Police, that slogans demanding Aazadi were raised. Earlier, there was some minor scuffle between the groups, which the Amnesty staff tried its best to end. But, and by no definition and at no point was anything that was even remotely seditious said, done or performed.

One can confidently say this because as per the Supreme Court of India, in the case of Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar 1962, the judgment clearly states that a speech would amount to sedition (Section 124 A of IPC) only if it involves an incitement to violence or public disorder. The court ruled that: “[C]riticism of public measures or comment on Government action, however strongly worded, would be within reasonable limits and would be consistent with the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression.” And the complainant knows this very well but is not ready to accept it because that would disrupt their game plan of harassing individuals and groups they don’t like or who don’t toe the line with them or their opinions.

They also know that their case is hardly going to stand in the court of law, especially in the Supreme Court. It is a well-known fact that convictions for sedition are rare. A report published by Newslaundry early this year clearly shows how the law of sedition does not hold any value in reality. It notes that, “…[T]he apex court of this country has not convicted a single person under (the charge of sedition), over the last 10 years. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code that deals with sedition finds mention in 11 Supreme Court judgments between 2005 and 2015. None of these judgments, though, sentenced the accused on charges of sedition.” Hence, the complainants and their allies are mounting political pressure and using extra-judicial means like protesting outside Amnesty’s offices, resulting in the temporary shutdown of its offices in different parts of the country and the postponement of scheduled events in Mumbai and Delhi. In fact, this afternoon ABVP workers tried to storm Amnesty office In Bangalore with petrol bottles.

Research on law of sedition tells us, as is rightly argued in the latest report of Human Rights Watch that, it is “often used against dissenters, human rights activists, and those critical of the government.” And there is a long history to it, right from the very inception of the law. It was used against Mahatma Gandhi and B.G. Tilak during the colonial era and Binayak Sen, Arundhati Roy, Seema Azad and residents of Kudankulam (Tamil Nadu), to name a few in the recent past. Given its draconian nature, while pleading guilty Mahatma Gandhi had famously said in his deposition, “Section 124 A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law.”

But the issue here is not just limited to the charge of sedition but goes beyond that. In the wake of the recent controversy, as has been reported, “the Home Ministry has launched a probe into the funding of the non-governmental organisation for “possible” violation of foreign contribution rules.” This clearly indicates that, as often said in Hindi, sedition to bahana, hai asal mein kuchh aur nishana hai (Sedition is just a pretext, the real target is something else). In other words, by raising the bogey of sedition, anti-national slogans and foreign funding, the government and its political allies are trying to sabotage and attack the crucial human rights protection work that organisations like Amnesty are involved in.

Today, Amnesty might be the target but nor was it their first target nor will it end with Amnesty. There is a long list of human rights organisations and defenders across the country who have been targeted by government after government, political party after political party and state government after state government. In short, when it comes to the use of sedition, all seem united and in agreement. There is a close relationship between the use of the sedition law and the attack on the constitutional values and promises of India. They are directly proportional to each other and that’s the biggest problem.

Hence, if we want to get rid of the problem, the first and foremost thing that should be done is to strike down the section that deals with sedition from the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Because there is nothing that can be called the misuse of sedition law, as is often argued and perceived. There isn’t even one case that proves Sedition beyond reasonable doubt, or where the law was or can be used in a just manner. The law is inherently draconian and until we get away with it, the problem is going to persist in one way or the other. Notably, our erstwhile colonial masters (the British) which legislated it to muzzle dissent, have already stuck it down from its statute in 2009.

What then are we waiting for?




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