Three times in the six days, the Karnataka police has questioned children studying at the Shaheen Urdu Medium Primary School in Bidar. On Thursday, a student’s mother and the school’s head teacher were arrested on sedition charges for a play that the police said criticised the Citizenship Amendment Act. The mother and the teacher were allegedly involved in the creation of the play, while the school management has been booked for allowing the play to be staged in its premises.
The police action seems to be the result of an allegation that lines a child delivered insulted Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The school has maintained that the play had nothing insulting about the prime minister and that it was an exercise to sensitise the students about the concerns of Muslims about the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Population Register and the National Register of Citizens. But the police sprung to action based on a complaint filed by a Hindutva activist.
Apart from the fact that the case is a gross misuse of the sedition law, the way the police has dealt with the children is abhorrent. An attempt is being made to get the children implicate parents and teachers, violating common practices followed when interrogating children.
Misuse of sedition law
It seems the Karnataka police is not concerned by the repeated warnings that the Supreme Court has issued over the decades against the use of sedition laws. Even on Friday, the court expressed its displeasure at terms such as “sedition and anti-nation” being used loosely.
Several Supreme Court judgements have clarified that the serious charge of sedition can only be invoked when an act leads to public disorder. Mere criticism of the government or use of strong language against its functionaries cannot be construed as sedition.
But this is exactly what the Karnataka police has done. After a video of parts of the play did the rounds on social media, the accusation was that a child spoke a line in the play that Narendra Modi should be beaten with slippers. However, several media reports have debunked this claim. The child seems to have made a generic statement that anyone who demands documents to prove one’s citizenship should be beaten with chappals.
This does not in any manner provoke seditious emotions. Further, there has been no violence on the ground as a result. Apart from sedition, the police have also accused the teacher and the parent of promoting enmity between groups by staging the play. This is based on a flawed assumption that all Hindus support the law and all Muslims oppose it. The widespread protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act have showcased the opposition from across communities.
By Sunday, the Bidar police had questioned the children of the school three times. This is a kind of intimidation that has no sanction in law. According to family law expert Sudha Ramalingam, while the police have the right to question the children if it could help solve a crime, certain processes have to be followed.
For example, she said that ideally, the children have to be questioned in the presence of the parents. In this case, however, the children are being used to frame their own parents and teachers in a case that is a clear abuse of the sedition law. “What the police is doing is reckless,” she said.
Across the world, interrogating children is seen as a sensitive subject and the idea is to make the child’s atmosphere as comfortable as possible so that there is no emotional trauma. The Maharashtra police handbook, for example, makes it clear that any child who is below the age of 15 has to be questioned only in their house. The Bidar police chose to question them in their school.
Under Section 118 of the Evidence Act, a person has to be competent to understand the questions and its implications and have the ability to provide rational answers to be treated as a witness. The youngest of the children questioned by the Bidar police was nine years old.
“Such intimidation will lead to emotional scarring,” Ramalingam said. “Imagine the state of the child if she realises that her statements led to her mother going to jail.”