Karnataka Police officers questioning students of a school in Bidar | Twitter

Slapping sedition charges in Bidar case an act of unprecedented oppression

Inciting violence against the state is a crime, but expressing a non-violent opinion is a democratic right. Slapping of sedition charges, in the Bidar case, is an act of unprecedented oppression of expression by police and serious lack of application of mind by the prosecution and adjudicatory authorities.

If police ask questions during their course of duty, it is called interrogation. Therefore, the police “talked” to around 20 school children in Bidar for watching a drama against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), four or five times, in connection with a probe in a sedition case registered against a school headmistress, a parent and the school management.

When the Child Rights Commission objected to the breach of norms, the police justified it by saying that it was just “counselling” the school children for having acted against the laws passed by Parliament. Police could spare their time from busy investigation to counsel students not to oppose the CAA.

What a wonder? Are they police or Public Relations Officers (PROs) of the government or marketing officers of political parties? And, why is it sedition?

Sedition is defined in Indian Penal Code (IPC) as: ‘an act that brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise’.

Related news: Anti-CAA play: Karnataka school challenges sedition case in SC

In this particular case, as per media reports, an instant drama – without a pre-written script or serious direction – was played in Shaheen School on January 21 that strongly opposed the CAA. The students were given the theme and the conversation, in the play, was as follows:

First child: The government is telling Muslims to leave India and go away.

Second child: Amma, Modi is asking us to show documents of your father and grandfather. If we don’t have them, he has asked us to leave the country.

Another child says, “Hit them with slippers if anybody asks for documents.”

FIR says that a child did wave a slipper at the Prime Minister during the enactment of the play.

When the play was posted on Facebook, an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) member filed a complaint and the police promptly registered an FIR on January 26, against the Headmistress, a parent and the management, on charges of sedition. It was alleged that the play spread misinformation. Thereafter, the Headmistress Fareeda Begum and Najbunnisa, the mother of a nine-year-old girl, were remanded to judicial custody until they secured bail in February.

Related news: Headmistress, parent arrested for staging anti-CAA drama in school

The charges slapped on them are under sections 124A (sedition), 504 (Intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace), 505 (2) (Statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes), 153A (promoting, attempting to promote disharmony) and 34 (common intent) of the Indian Penal Code.

Now, imagine the trauma the children would have undergone when they were questioned/ interrogated around five times by the Karnataka police in their uniform. They built an “inquiry room” within the school itself.

Najbunnisa’s daughter said that she answered all the queries and alleged that her mother was not let off despite that. Reeling out the sequence of events, she said, “We were asked how we prepared. I told them that we didn’t need any preparation. We just had to remember a few points. Then the police asked us whether it was right or wrong to hit the Prime Minister with slippers? I said it was wrong. Then I was asked if I would like to repeat what I did in the play? I answered in the negative. I answered all the questions truthfully. Even then my mother was arrested.’

But what was recorded by the police was different. The recorded version said, “The girl has told the police during interrogation that she was preparing for her play at home. It was then her mother Najbunnisa encouraged her to make a statement against Prime Minister Modi.”

Police further said that as rehearsals were on for some weeks the headmistress knew the content and that the parent was tutoring her child to use an abusive word, which wasn’t finally used in the play.

Related news: Bidar sedition case: MP, minister justify cops; seek to blacklist school

Assuming the cops’ version to be true, making a statement against the Prime Minister is not an offence and much less constitutes sedition. Even if it is assumed that the script of the drama included slipper-waving at the Prime Minister and critical remarks against CAA and NRC, it cannot attract charges of sedition. At the most, it could be defamation, for which the defamed has to personally file a defamation suit, without involving the office or the government against the director of the play and the management which staged it. Mother can in no way be made an accused.

Another serious violation was when they placed a nine-year-old under the care of a neighbour and failed to alert the local child welfare committee. Also, during the course of questioning the students, some policemen present were in their uniforms, thereby, violating the law.

Sebastian, a juvenile justice advocate stated that the interactions with parents, school officials, children, police and the perusal of photographs and the CCTV footage clearly show that the police violated the rights of the children.

According to him, “The inquiry into the incident has also found that a child whose parent was arrested was sent to the home of a neighbour without informing the child welfare committee in violation of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000.”

Related news: Bidar sedition case: cops just counselled students, State tells Karnataka HC

The child rights commission also found that many students have stopped going to school after the police investigation.

Take the case of a BJP MP repeatedly saying “Goli Maro” (fire the bullet) at critics of the government. It was a clear case of subversion as it instilled hatred against people, who are the real rulers in a democracy. It’s also factually proved that a couple of men resorted to ‘goli’ at anti-CAA protesters.

But the state ignored that possible sedition of a ruling party MP but considered a play at a school in Bidar of Karnataka, laced with criticism against the CAA and the NRC, waving slippers at those demanding details of people and at the photo of the PM. Judges did not see that there is no case of sedition prima facie and sent the headmistress and a parent to judicial custody.

If the court spells out a verdict of innocence after a few years, it would make little difference to the traumatized children. It’s bad to use power to prosecute selectively and blindly.

Given the stand of the rulers against secular and constitutional values, one can understand their bulldozing of protests against the CAA and the NRC. But how did the police and the courts fail to see that facts do not suggest sedition or any other crime in this case? If they are really educated, properly trained and know plain English, how can they read the criticism of a government policy as “sedition”?

Related news: Bidar sedition row: School head, student’s mother granted bail

In yet another case, as per the Karnataka media report of December 2019, children, from a school run by an RSS leader, enacted the demolition of the Babri masjid. The video of the incident showed many children “demolish” a poster depicting the masjid and replacing it with a “Ram Temple” photo amidst chants of “Ram.”

Union Minister of Chemicals and Fertilizers, DV Sadananda Gowda, Puducherry Governor Kiran Bedi and several Ministers from Karnataka including H Nagesh and Sashikala Jolle witnessed it Chief Guests and guests of honour.

According to the Karnataka police that drama did not constitute sedition.

In Kedar Nath Singh vs the State of Bihar, the Supreme Court explained the sedition as “disloyalty to the Government established by law is not the same thing as commenting in strong terms upon the measures or acts of Government, or its agencies, so as to ameliorate the condition of the people or to secure the cancellation or alteration of those acts or measures by lawful means.”

It means that the subversion of the government can be an offence, but the criticism of its actions is not. Inciting violence against the state is a crime, but expressing a non-violent opinion is a democratic right. Slapping of sedition charges, in the Bidar case, is an act of unprecedented oppression of expression by police and serious lack of application of mind by the prosecution and adjudicatory authorities.

(M Sridhar Acharyulu, former Central Information Commissioner and Dean, School of Law, Bennett University)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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