Veteran journalist Vinod Dua might have got reprieve from the Supreme Court in a sedition case, but lawyers fighting similar legal battles in the North-East are not much hopeful that the case will act as a deterrent against misuse of the colonial-era law.
As many as 229 cases have been filed in five years from 2015 to 2019 across the country under section 124-A of Indian Penal Code which deals with the offence of “sedition” as per data tabled in Parliament earlier this year.
Of the 92 sedition cases lodged across the country in 2019, as per the latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, North-East accounts for 28.26 per cent of the cases, making it one of the sedition hotspots of India.
Earlier this year, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Manipur government had “detained” on sedition charges two senior journalists Paojel Chaoba and Dhiren Sadokpam over the publication of an article on the state’s militancy movement in their online news portal, the Frontier Manipur. They were, however, released after 24 hours.
In July last year, a sedition case was filed against social activist Erendro Leichombam over a Facebook post. Another Imphal-based journalist, Kishorechandra Wangkhem, known for his strong voice against the state’s ruling dispensation, has been arrested thrice under several stringent laws, including the National Security Act and sedition, since 2018.
His latest arrest was in May this year for a Facebook post in which he had said that cow dung and cow urine could not cure COVID-19. He made the post after the BJP state president S. Tikendra Singh had fallen prey to the deadly virus.
In his post Wangkhem had wrote: “Santhi Sanyung na yadrabo, oh!!! RIP #Rashikang_Kangyet Hayeng nga chaani (cow dung cow urine didn’t work. Groundless argument. Tomorrow I will eat fish).”
This time he was not booked for sedition, but under sections 153 and 505 of the IPC that deals with vilification or attacks on religion, race, place of birth, language etc of any particular group or class or upon the founders and prophets of a religion.
Later he was also charged with the stringent National Security Act (NSA) to be detained despite bail.
Social activist Leichombam was also arrested again with Wangkhem, raising doubt about the state government repeatedly targeting those speaking against it.
In neighbouring Assam, a 48-year-old writer was arrested in April this year on sedition and other charges for an alleged Facebook post made after 22 security personnel were killed in a Maoist attack in Chhattisgarh.
The accused, Sikha Sarma, a Guwahati-based Assamese writer, had allegedly written on her Facebook page that the salaried professionals who die in the line of duty cannot be termed martyrs.
“Going by that logic, electricity department workers who die from electrocution should also be labeled martyrs. Do not make people sentimental, media,” she had added in the same post.
An All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) lawmaker Aminul Islam was arrested last year for allegedly comparing the state’s COVID quarantine facilities with the detention centres.
In January 2019, Sahitya Akademi awardee litterateur Dr Hiren Gohain, activist Akhil Gogoi and journalist Manjit Mahanta were booked on charges of sedition for their comments during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
While granting bail to Gohain, Islam and others, the court had questioned the justification of invoking sedition law against them, pointed out senior Guwahati-based advocate Hafiz Rashid Choudhury, who had moved the bail plea of the AIUDF lawmaker and the litterateur.
There had been several instances where the court took serious exception to the blatant misuse of the sedition law, but it did not curb the abuse, he added, pointing out that between 2016 and 2019, the number of cases filed under Section 124-A of the IPC increased by 160 per cent, but the rate of conviction dropped to 3.3 per cent.
“Since it (Vinod Dua case) was a high-profile case, it got a lot of media attention. But I have my doubts whether it will act as a deterrent against the misuse in the long- run. Maybe it will have some short-term impact at best,” said Choudhury.
As per the sedition law, “Whoever, by words, either 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 excite disaffection towards, the government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added; or, with fine.”
In most cases in the North-East, Choudhury said, the law is used as a “political vendetta” by the ruling dispensations against their critics.
“Unless a government becomes more receptive to criticism, the misuse will continue irrespective of court orders,” he added.
Wangkhem’s lawyer Chontham Victor said the apex court’s recent verdict in Dua’s case at best would be a point of reference in the cases against his client and others booked under the same law.
“The law itself has defined what amounts to sedition and yet it is misused. More importantly, this is not the only law that has been indiscriminately used in the region. Even other draconian laws such as the National Security Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act too are often misused,” said Manipur-based human rights activist and lawyer Babloo Loitongbam.
In Dua’s case the apex court referred to its 1962 judgment in the Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar case to rule that “every journalist will be entitled to protection in terms of Kedar Nath Singh, as every prosecution under sections 124A (sedition) and 505 (public mischief) of the IPC must be in strict conformity with the scope and ambit of said sections as explained in, and completely in tune with the law laid down in Kedar Nath Singh”.