Eighteen-year-old Amulya Leona was charged with sedition on Thursday after she shouted “Pakistan Zindabad” at an anti-Citizenship Amendment Act rally organised by the All India Majlis e Ittehad ul Muslimeen in Bengaluru.

A video of the event at which Leona is seen shouting the slogan has gone viral. In the clip, AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi can be seen looking alarmed the moment he hears the slogan and promptly asks the woman to stop the chants. Owaisi later criticised her for misusing the party forum.

Despite this, Owaisi has come under fire from the Hindutva critics on social media, as they questioned his patriotism yet again. In addition, Leona’s father in Chikkamagaluru in Karnataka was made to disown his daughter’s comments on camera and was heckled by a group men to chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai”.

A Facebook post by Leona on February 16 that came to attention after the incident seems to show that the teenager did not intend to single out Pakistan for praise so much as to make the point that humanity should be placed above the territorial idea of a nation state. A translation of the original Kannada message seemed to indicate what Leona was about to say before she was asked to stop her speech at the meeting.

“Hindustan zindabad, Pakistan zindabad, Bangladesh zindabad, Sri Lanka zindabad, Nepal zindabad, China zindabad, Afghanistan zindabad, Bhutan zindabad,” Leona had written. “Whichever country it may be, zindabad to all countries.”

She added, “Children are taught that country means territory. But, we, the children, want to tell you –a country is its people. Every person is entitled to basic amenities. All the people should have citizenship rights. The governments of all countries should look after its people in a good manner. Zindabad to everyone who works in the service of people.”

Despite the criticism of Leona’s action, it is clear is that the police’s decision to invoke the sedition law is disproportionate.

Labeling Muslims

Owaisi’s response to the slogan was clearly the right thing to do, given the atmosphere that has been created across India ever since protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act broke out in December. The new law introduces a religious criterion for awarding citizenship, providing illegal immigrants from three countries a fast track to Indian citizenship – except if they are Muslim.

Hindutva groups, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its ministers, have repeatedly attempted to portray Muslims agitating against the law as “anti-nationals”.

In such a situation, for someone to chant slogans in support of Pakistan at a meeting organised by a Muslim party is irresponsible and ill-conceived. Such an action plays into the hands of Hindutva groups, which are now trying to justify their bigoted opinion that all Indian Muslims harbour sympathies for Pakistan.

There is, of course, little evidence for this at the protests across India, which have foreground in speeches and artwork the Preamble of the Constitution that guarantees equality, justice and fraternity.

A protesters hold a picture of BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, at a demonstration against India’s new citizenship law in New Delhi on December 20. Credit: Prakash Singh/AFP

As many such as Left activist Kavita Krishnan have pointed out, Leona’s intention was never to celebrate Pakistan. It seems the legitimate anxiety that the chant created at the event led to the unfortunate consequence of her being stopped from completing her statement. As a result, she is heard shouting “Pakistan Zindabad” three times before the microphone was taken away from her.

While it could be argued that she was simply trying to get the attention of the crowd, the consequences that the chant would have created for the protests is dire. Owaisi’s decision to stop her cannot be faulted.

What can be faulted is the manner in which the state has responded to events. The police immediately filed a case of sedition against Leona and the magistrate has sent her to judicial custody for 14 days.

Khalistan, Pakistan and sedition

Can chanting “Pakistan zindabad” without an intention to bring about disaffection against the government be deemed seditious? Clearly not. In fact, the Supreme Court has condoned similar statements made in even more drastic circumstances and has criticised police officials who had failed to apply their mind in moving prosecutions for sedition.

In 1995, the case of two Punjab state officials booked for sedition came up in appeal before the Supreme Court. Balwant Singh and Bhupinder Singh were tried for sedition after they shouted “Khalistan Zindabad” and “Hindustan Murdabad” in Chandigarh hours after former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh guards on October 31, 1984.

The Khalistani movement was a separatist movement that Indira Gandhi put down with force. Its aim was to create a separate nation for Sikhs. In June 1984, security forces stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out Khalistani militants and their leader Jairnail Singh Bhindranwale. Any support to the Khalistanis at that point was deemed anti-national.

The two were convicted by the lower court. But the Supreme Court threw the cases out and observed:

“Keeping in view the prosecution evidence that the slogans as noticed above were raised a couple of times only by the appellant and that neither the slogans evoked a response from any other person of the Sikh community or reaction from people of other communities, we find it difficult to hold that upon the raising of such casual slogans, a couple of times without any other act whatsoever the charge of sedition can be founded.” 

The court added that it did not appear that the police “should have attached much significance to the casual slogans” raised by two a couple of times and “read too much into them”.

A protest in Ahmedabad on December 17. Credit Sam Panthaky/AFP

Leona’s case is similar. Even if for a moment it is assumed that her intention was only to chant “Pakistan zindabad” and nothing else, it was merely a statement. While it could be deemed irresponsible given the political atmosphere, the fact that there was no serious response from others to this slogan makes it unfit to attract the sedition provision under Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code.

In fact, the reaction was the exact opposite: the organisers immediately took the microphone away from the woman and condemned her statements. Thus, no feelings against the government were excited by the statements, a requirement to fulfill charges under the law.

Given the Supreme Court precedent, it is unfortunate that the magistrate acted in a mechanical manner and did not apply his mind before sending Leona to judicial custody. Legitimising unfounded sedition charges acts as a catalyst in perpetuating opinions that certain sections and communities are “anti-national”.

This is not the first time the sedition law is being invoked for merely making statements in the context of the Citizenship Amendment Act protests. Earlier this month, the Karnataka police booked a parent and a teacher in a school at Bidar for a school play about the citizenship law. The student production is alleged to have contained statements that criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The students, the youngest of whom was nine years old, were harassed five times under the garb of questioning them.

The sedition law was also invoked against Sharjeel Imam, a Jawaharlal Nehru University student who asked for a blockade of Assam. In this case too, there was no reaction on the ground and the statements were disowned immediately by many.

Earlier this month, the Mumbai Police filed a sedition case against 51 persons for allegedly chanting slogans in support of Imam at a queer pride event.