On Tuesday, the Dhanbad police in Jharkhand filed cases of sedition against more than 3,000 people for protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. On Wednesday evening, Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren tweeted to announce that the cases would be dropped. “Laws are not made to frighten and silence the people but to instill a feeling of safety among the public,” he said.
While the state government’s swift action is welcome, the incident exposes the colonial mindset of police departments across India. Officers seem to believe that it is acceptable to invoke penal laws disproportionate to the alleged illegal action.
In November, Scroll.in reported on how sedition cases had been filed against more than 10,000 people in Jharkhand’s Khunti district for installing stones engraved with the provisions of the Constitution in their villages. When Hemant Soren became chief minister last month, his cabinet’s first decision was to resolve to drop these cases.
But the police officers in his state have failed to understand this message. Days later, the same department filed sedition cases en masse in another region of the state against people protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
The misuse of the sedition law is rampant in India and the provision is often used as the first step to quell any form of dissent. The vast majority of cases hold no water, as is evident from the abysmally low conviction rates: between 2014 and 2016, there were only two convictions under the sedition law. The courts have often criticised the police for using this law to intimidate dissidents, in the process weakening the criminal justice system.
As early as in 1962, the Supreme Court made it clear that mere criticism of government does not amount to sedition. Criticising the government is very much part of the right to free speech guaranteed under the Constitution. In 2016, the Supreme Court reiterated this view after cases of the sedition law being abused were brought to its attention.
But such legal pronouncements seem to have fallen on deaf ears. As the Jharkhand incident shows, the police do not seem to hold back from using the sedition law even if the political dispensation is disinclined to do so. It’s time for them to be read the message out loud.