Activists, academics, journalists and writers in Assam--which saw a high number of cases filed under Section 124A in the first term of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, from 2014 to 2019--have expressed joy at the recent judgment of the Supreme Court on sedition charges.
Assam recorded as many as 54 cases of sedition around the time, what with the state riven by a series of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Some cases were filed against people for their social media posts considered as anti-India or pro-Pakistan, a trend that was new to this part of the country. While offenders of the first two categories received some public attention, most people charged with sedition over social media posts were youths from lower-income groups and flew under the radar.
Activist-cum-legislator from Assam, Akhil Gogoi, has been slapped with multiple sedition cases since 2017 till 2021, most of these during his protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019.
Assam recorded 19 cases under Section 124A in 2017. In 2018 and 2019, it recorded 17 sedition cases each. In the previous three years, it has recorded only one sedition case.
Talking to Outlook, Gogoi said, “Assam is a place where sedition laws are abused the most both quantitatively and qualitatively. Those who are dissenting against the BJP, get slapped with sedition charges in Assam. Communalism is also a factor playing out here.”
Though sedition charges were also levelled against people during the previous 15-year-old Congress rule as well, there is a difference in the nature of the allegations that are invoked in the charges. Reports show that earlier, sedition charges slapped against individuals were related to allegations of terrorism. Most of these cases were filed against people accused of having an association with insurgent groups like United Liberation Front of Assam, among others.
Hailing the Supreme Court ruling, Gogoi said it's high time the law is scrapped from the country's lawbooks.
“This is a historic judgement. The intervention of the Supreme Court will strengthen democracy in our country, and will also uproot a colonial legacy,” he said.
Anirban Roy Choudhury, a journalist from Silchar district of Assam, who runs a news website, was slapped with such a case in December 2021 over an editorial he had written. The FIR was filed by a member of the All Assam Bengali Hindu Association. The editorial had allegedly extended support to Pradip Dutta Roy, a politician from Barak Valley, who was booked under the same law a few weeks ago. Dutta Roy had been booked for asking the government to remove a hoarding written in Assamese and to replace it with one written in Bengali. Barak Valley of Assam, in which Silchar is located, is dominated by Bengali speakers. Bengali is the associate official language there.
The complainant stated that Roy Choudhury's article could hamper the “brotherhood between Assamese and the Bengalis of Assam".
“In my case, it was an attempt to shut us up. We are a hyper-local website operating from a remote corner of the state without having a big reader base. It was an example of sheer misuse of the law. The article for which the sedition case was slapped was an opinion piece. The problem is that the government doesn’t want us to write.”
Roy Choudhury, who is out on bail, is still fighting the case in the Silchar district court. He does not keep high hopes on the Supreme Court ruling, though he feels it is somewhat of a ‘starting point’.
“These cases are mostly filed against people who raise their voice for minorities, be they of sentimental, religious, linguistic or any kind. But what if the sentiments change and the tables turn? Then the same law can be used against the majority,” he says.
Arif Jwadder, a Supreme Court advocate from Assam, says arrests under sedition laws are problematic anywhere, as it is a colonial-era law enacted to suppress and arrest freedom fighters; it cannot be used in a democracy. While welcoming the Supreme Court ruling, Arif advocated the striking down of the law.
“It is a welcome step, but SC didn’t put the law into abeyance rather it has put the pending trials etc in abeyance. Fresh FIRs under this section could still be lodged and the SC merely asked the governments for restraint. Court should either strike it down or allow it. Laws can’t be kept in abeyance," Jwadder says, adding that he sedition charges are used actively to instil fear in the minds of young activists.
“Rule of law is nowhere to be seen. Extra-judicial killings are happening every day in broad daylight. There have been many instances where dissenters were charged with this colonial-era law. This law has always been misused against any political dissenter. It has been actively used against young activists in order to instil fear in them.”
In April 2021, a case of sedition was slapped on Assamese writer Sikha Sharma. The case was registered by the police based on a Facebook post by Sharma on security personnel massacred by Maoists in Chhattisgarh.
Sikha Sharma was later released on bail.
Talking to Outlook, Sharma said, “The Constitution has given us the right to freedom of speech and I will keep on exercising it. Just for criticising a particular party, or for dissent of opinion against anyone, one cannot be charged with sedition.”
Even Congress Legislator Abul Kalam Rashid Alam, who criticised the state government for its handling of the pandemic, was booked for sedition in May 2020.
“I had the means to defend myself against the charges. But not everyone can hire a lawyer and arrange for bail. Look at the rate of conviction against the cases registered in the past eight years. The sedition laws should be scrapped, it is outdated and we no longer live in the British era,” says Anirban Roy Choudhury.