The Indian police registered 112 cases of sedition across the country between 2014 and 2016, but only two have led to convictions, according to a report released by the National Crime Records Bureau on Thursday and a government statement in Parliament last year.
The National Crime Records Bureau’s annual Crime in India report, the country’s only official record of crimes, showed that 35 cases of sedition were registered in 2016. Haryana topped the list with 12 cases, most of them were linked to the agitation by Jats in that state in February 2016 for reservations in educational institutions and government jobs.
Delhi accounted for two cases. The first relates to the February 9, 2016, incident in Jawaharlal Nehru University, which led to the arrest of student union leader Kanhaiya Kumar and two others in connection with an event commemorating the death anniversary of 2001 Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru. The second case pertained to a meeting at the Press Club of India in Delhi on the following day, February 10, at which anti-Indian slogans were allegedly chanted. The event’s convenor, Delhi University professor SAR Gilani, was charged with sedition.
Thirty cases of sedition were reported in 2015 and 47 the previous year. In 2014, the National Crime Records Bureau, for the first time began to divide the chapter on offences against the state into specific categories, including sedition.
Act of harassment
While the Bureau report for 2014 does not mention how many sedition cases were chargesheeted that year in preparation for being placed before the courts, as many as six cases reached the chargesheet stage in 2015, and 16 did in 2016. A chargesheet refers to a document of accusations prepared by the police, after a First Information Report about an alleged offence has been registered.
Even if it is assumed that all the 22 cases of sedition chargesheeted by the police in 2015 and 2016 were registered in those two years itself, the rate of disposal of such cases by the police would be very low. At best, it would roughly mean that one out of three sedition cases registered in that period were chargesheeted by the police in the same period.
This works to the disadvantage of the defendant, said senior lawyers. The longer a case takes to reach court, the greater the scope for the authorities to harass the defendant, they said.
“The primary reason for the abysmally low conviction rate for sedition cases is that the law is misapplied,” said senior advocate Sanjay Hegde. “While the provision of sedition can only be applied under extraordinary circumstances, accompanied by sanctions from relevant authorities, practically it has become a tool of harassment.”
In most cases, the idea of the authorities is to book and arrest the person without thinking of the course of action, he said. He added that ultimately these cases do not stand in a court of law.
In 2016, six sedition cases were dropped by the police for the lack of evidence and two were termed as false cases in final reports, the Bureau report said.
Cases crumble in court
The trials in four sedition cases were completed in 2015, with all of them leading to acquittals. In the three sedition cases for which trials were completed in 2016, one ended in a conviction and two in acquittals, said the report. All other chargesheeted cases are pending trial.
The last conviction was recorded in 2014, the government told the Lok Sabha in March last year. In 2014, the National Crime Records Bureau had not yet started publishing data on the disposal of sedition cases by the police and courts.
Sedition is dealt with under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, and punishment could extend to life imprisonment. The section describes an offender as anyone who by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection, towards the government established by the law India. It, however, exempts comments expressing disapprobation of measures or administrative actions of the government with a view to obtain their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection. It even defines the expression disaffection as an act that includes disloyalty and feelings of enmity.
However, the interpretation of the law by India’s law enforcement agencies has been controversial. Civil right activists have said that the application of the sedition law in several cases was excessive. The questions revolving around sedition have been dealt with by the Supreme Court several times.
“One must understand that only an act of violence committed to overthrow the government qualifies as a case of sedition,” said senior advocate Prashant Bhushan. “But these days we get to see people getting charged with sedition for comments on social media and even celebrations after cricket matches. Such cases, which are pursued more as a tool of harassment, finally stand weak in the court of law and so the conviction rate is abysmally low.”
So far, 2017 has seen some curious sedition cases. In two of them, people were booked for allegedly celebrating Pakistan’s win in a cricket match against India in June. While the charge of sedition was dropped in one of the two cases (reported in Madhya Pradesh), the chargesheet in the other case (reported in Rajasthan) is yet to be filed, police officials said.
In a recent case, an engineering student from Pune who had allegedly approached several candidates before the Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections held earlier this month and offered to rig electronic voting machines for them was charged with sedition.