Imagine yourself as an activist or journalist from a minority community in India or a Hindu who happens to not be from the so-called “upper-caste.” Then, as a concerned citizen of India, you go out there to raise your voice so that the government can respond for the wellness of all people. However, it turns out that your voice was interpreted as a “threat” to the “integrity” of the nation and somehow constitutes a case of calling “rebellion.” What started out as a peaceful mission to improve the conditions of Indians turned into your warrant and immense suffering. This is the reality and fear any vocal Indian faces at a rate 28% higher than the preceding government since 2014. Every. Single. Year.
In this post, out of respect of the constitution and a mission to protect the Indian people and democracy, I reverberate a no-longer-very-hot-take on the sedition law (Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code) and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
What is the Sedition Law (Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code)?
The law basically states that any “words, spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excited disaffection towards the government established by law shall be punished … the expression ‘disaffection’ includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.” In its sub-explanations, even lawful opposition to the government must be without “exciting hatred, contempt or disaffection.”
For a nation that had to fight for its independence against colonial tyranny and non-democratic forms of ruling, it’s a shocker that we still hold on to this law because it was created by the very powers we fought against for independence for the very purposes of keeping us from gaining it.
Had it not been for several Supreme and High Court cases in the 1900s, the plain text of this law easily resembles the tool of what could be a fascist state. Even though the sedition law was declared void in cases such as Ram Nandan v. State (Allahabad High Court), and in another of the Punjab High Court, the Supreme Court’s judgment in 1962 called for its enforcement but only in response to the “incitement of violence.” Yet, we don’t see this in practice.
What is the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA)?
Unlike the simple paragraph of Section 124A, the UAPA is a more comprehensive document (read here). Yet, the detail has not spared it from misuse and much-needed criticism.
This law also aims at protecting the “integrity and sovereignty of India.” Essentially, it allows the government to place limits on fundamental rights in order to serve it’s so-called purpose.
In its most dangerous manifestation, a 2019 amendment also gave the government the power to designate individuals as terrorists without a trial. This law also changes other rules of normal bail, trial, and requirement of investigation, making the circumstances an accused faces far more onerous.
Even in cases where an individual may seek to fight for bail in the absence of a speedy trial, the matter becomes extremely difficult due to the financial, time-based, and other institutional barriers that inhibit the righting of such wrongs.
Reasons To Oppose Sedition and UAPA Laws
Apart from the obvious problems we see in the wording and implications of the laws as previously described (arbitrary detention, trial issues, financial and time burdens, etc.), there are other concerns as well that come down to how the current government is dealing with these laws.
Unless your only source of information is WhatsApp forwards carefully crafted by extremist nationalists and well-paid IT cell employees, you would be well aware of how sedition and UAPA laws are used as tools to crush dissent, not just in India, but in any nation where equivalents of the law exist (hint: they’re not the tools of good democracies!). In any case, I will couple statistics and several case studies in the following paragraphs to establish the case against these laws.
Tools of Oppression and a Threat to Fundamental Rights
Firstly, law has often protected freedom of speech to the extent that destructive statements should be allowed as long as they are not from an elected official and insofar as the speaker does not participate in executing violence. This was also the standing the Supreme Court took in 1995 in Balwant Singh v State of Punjab where sedition was kept aside for an anti-India slogan as “mere casual slogans have no effect on public order.”
I do believe in some limits on free speech, but they are very far from what these laws stipulate, and they constitute benefit for the people. Even then, crushing hate speech by law does not change society for good. Rather, it bottles up more hate that bursts in even more violent manifestations. As long as we continue using only hard-law to “fix” people, we will only break them more.
Evidence by Experts and Statistics
Secondly, even statistics and studies by notable officials make the state’s intentions clear. The laws are used to stifle dissent. It is no surprise that 96% of all sedition cases registered in the 2010-2021 period were after BJP came to power, and every year that BJP remained in power, the number of registered cases increased by several percentage points while conviction remained extremely low. When we turn to UAPA, we see that it only has a realistic conviction rate of 2%. Even the Chief Justice of India highlighted that the “law has been misused by the executive powers.”
Thirdly, I can’t go without highlighting the government’s double standards to further expose their intentions. In my previous Republic Day post on Rights and Duties, we saw how government officials like Modi used Gandhi’s name to call for duties over rights. I had my disagreements with that, which you can read more about in that post, but let’s hold on to their affinity towards Gandhi and bring out some of his other teachings.
One of the core duties Gandhi advocated for and as does the fundamental duties prescribed in the Indian constitution too calls for continued resilience in protecting people’s freedoms and democracy. Gandhi and other prominent freedom fighters have explicitly called sedition laws and equivalents as “the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.” So really, when will the state stop using parts of prominent historic figures selectively to serve their agenda while ignoring other parts that serve the people?
Exploring another case, Earlier last year, the comedian Munawar Farouqi faced jail time because of false complaints and twisted perceptions. After he was out, all (at least 12) of his shows were cancelled because of threats by right-wing extremists. The threats called for the police and government to cancel his shows or else the protestors would create law and order concerns.
My question is, how does this not constitute a crime under UAPA? These were literal, verbatim, threats of violence, hate, social incohesion and whatnot. The state will readily use these laws for anti-government cartoonists and comedians, but when it comes to actual violence from their kind, there is no response.
It is also no surprise that many crimes committed by state officials through speeches, incitement, and even physically during events such as the farmers’ protests and CAA/NRC protests have gone unpunished. I could write a book, or several volumes, talking about the misuse and double standards. Even recent “calls for Genocide” against Muslims haven’t been addressed the same way other even falsely reported and misrepresented cases were, only because of the identity of the person (Article 15 much) or their status as an activist/protestor.
A Global Embarrassment
Moving to my fourth point, we shall enter what may seem like a circus that the government has created with unshakeable confidence. Last year in October-November as Pakistan won over India in a cricket match, the government even used sedition laws to arrest those who celebrated Pakistan’s victory.
How low does a nation have to stoop to end up at this point? How would you, as an Indian, feel if people abroad identify your government as the one that was so petty about being supported that it arrested people over cricket celebrations? Speak up!
Conclusion on the Case Against Sedition and UAPA Laws
Clearly, the Chief Justice and his bench’s statement in 2021 acknowledging that “if a police officer wants to fix anybody in a village for something, he can use Section 124A … people are scared” were spot-on. Several court decisions and experts have similar claims about UAPA. Combine this with all the data, expert advice, and the examples of people that the state has harassed (Disha Ravi, Aisha Sultana, Siddiqui Kappan, and several others), and if you truly care about India and Indians, you should oppose these laws too.
“Preventive detention laws and special legislations like UAPA — anti-terror laws as they are called — allow the state to carve out exception for its own lawlessness. These are the laws which permit the state to claim that we are governed by the rule of law and on the other hand pass such legislations which violate the rule of law altogether. These are the laws which go against the basic tenets of the constitution, such as freedom, equality, right to life, liberty etc. It therefore becomes important to look at these laws which gives an exceptional power to the state over citizens — to arrest them, to detain them, to charge them with offences which otherwise they may not be able to charge them with, keep them behind bars for years together, and also for ensuring that dissent in all forms is crushed.“ – Senior Advocate Mihir Desai.
The safety of well-meaning Indians, politicians, activists, cartoonists and somehow even comedians lies in the abolition or meaningful amendment of these oppressive laws. The safety of Indian democracy lies in this. No well-meaning writer, activist, journalist, cartoonist, comedian, or any individual should fear for their life against these laws.
This Republic Day, show your love, care, and concern for Indian citizens, the democracy, and the constitution by joining the fight (peacefully—can’t believe I have to be so clear on this) against these laws.
A Message for Upcoming Indian State Elections
As state elections fast approach in Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Manipur, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, and Himachal Pradesh, remember the chaos that BJP brought to the nation and every state and vote accordingly.
- Most UAPA cases were registered in Manipur (BJP-led). Kashmir (rules imposed by BJP), Assam (BJP-led). Uttar Pradesh (BJP-led), also has high cases.
- Manipur also had the most sedition cases. Karnataka had the third highest (BJP-led), followed by Haryana (BJP-led), Kashmir, Bihar (BJP-dominated), Kerala (not BJP-led), and Uttar Pradesh again.
- In currently BJP-led Uttar Pradesh, the Allahabad High Court has flagged the govt. time and again for misuse of “security” laws.
This is only one aspect of how dangerous and harmful BJP is for the nation, its states, and the people, but there is so much more. Vote wisely. If you’re not eligible to vote or in country, share this with your family and those who are, or can further extend the message to those who can.
As long as the political agenda prioritizes serving the state, and not all people within it, there is only movement towards an inevitable societal collapse, instead of towards goodness, peace, and prosperity.
A successful democracy and society requires effort and proactive citizens. Don’t just read and forget this, but take action or plan to at whatever level you can, even if it just means to reshare this post. Also, commit to stay vigilant and read my next posts on the Republic Day Series for content that will help strengthen us and our democracy. Do your duty of being the citizen that upholds society and democracy.