ARTICLE14, a research and reportage initiative that focuses on justice and the legal system in India, launched on Friday a database that tracks the journey through the judicial system of 13,000 cases of sedition, that is, under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code [IPC], filed between 2010 and 2021 across India.
The database, called ‘A Decade of Darkness’, was built on the analysis of 1,300 legal documents, 800 media reports, 125 first information reports [FIRs] and over 70 interviews with those accused of sedition.
Increase in misuse since 2014
One of the salient findings of the database, outlined by Article14 here, is that 96 per cent of sedition cases filed against 405 Indians for criticising politicians and governments between 2010 and 2021 were registered after 2014, when the National Democratic Alliance [NDA] came to power at the Centre. Of these, 149 were accused of making “critical” and/or “derogatory” remarks against Prime Narendra Modi, and 144 against Uttar Pradesh [UP] Chief Minister Adityanath. There has been a 28 per cent rise in the number of sedition cases filed each year between 2014 and 2020, compared to the yearly average between 2010 and 2014, under the previous United Progressive Alliance [UPA] government.
It also reveals that since 2014, there has been a 190 per cent increase in the number of women charged with sedition. Posting allegedly “anti-national” or “pro-Pakistan” content on social media invited 105 cases of sedition. Between 2010 and 2013, during the UPA government at the Centre, only one such case was filed. In many of these cases, the absence of forensic checks on the part of the police, coupled with the speed with which it made arrests, was flagged as a concern.
According to Article14’s analysis, 39 per cent of the 279 sedition cases filed by the UPA’s union government between 2010 and 2014 were against those protesting the Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu, and the rest mostly against Maoists in the “red corridor”. The 519 sedition cases filed by the NDA government at the Centre between 2014 and 2021, were largely against protest movements, journalists and intellectuals.
Since 2014, there has been a pronounced rise in the filing of frivolous cases of sedition, completely contrary to the Supreme Court’s guidelines in this regard in its Kedar Nath Singh ruling of 1962: for not standing up for the national anthem, wearing t-shirts of the Pakistan National Cricket team during a procession, writing an open letter on mob lynching, remarking about a Taliban takeover, calling a politician a “bio-weapon”, protesting against legislation, supposedly celebrating the attack on security forces in Pulwama in 2019, celebrating losses of the Indian Men’s cricket team against the Pakistani one, and “defaming” the Uttar Pradesh government in the aftermath of the Hathras gang rape tragedy of 2020.
Article14 details that since 2014, there have been 176 people implicated in sedition cases filed by private complainants. Of these, 56 were accused in 23 sedition cases under the pressure of Hindutva extremist groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu Jagran Manch, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
There are several cases in which “[h]yperlocal politics, prior enmity between the accused and the complainant, and social media surveillance and reporting has a significant role to play in bringing sedition cases into the legal system”, Article14 claims.
Dismal conviction rate
The data reveals that those accused of sedition spent an average of 50 days in prison until a trial court granted bail, and up to 200 days until a High Court did so. While trial courts rejected bail more than allowing it, high court were much more charitable, granting seven bail applications for each one they reject.
Fifteen per cent of those accused of sedition work for the informal sector, and included serving or former government employees, retired security personnel, students, farmers, and entrepreneurs.
While granting bail, courts usually demand the payment of a bail bond from the accused, ranging anywhere between ten thousand to two lakh rupees. A majority of the accused interviewed by Article14 admitted to having sold land, jewellery, livestock, and taken on debt to pay their legal fees and bail bonds.
For the 126 people whose sedition trials concluded within the period of study, 98 were acquitted of all charges, 13, of charges of sedition only, and only 13 were convicted. This amounts to a dismal conviction rate of 0.1 per cent.
Article14 also flags another dangerous recent trend: a visible increase since 2018 in the number of cases where Section 153A (Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony) of the IPC was invoked along with sedition, and a gradual increase in the number of cases where sedition is coupled with Section 153B (Imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration) of the IPC since 2016.