At some point, the cases that were being filed under the infamous Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, more popularly known as sedition cases, began their rapid descent into the realm of the farcical.
Take one of the famous recent cases: In Maharashtra, an MLA-MP couple were booked under Section 124-A for threatening to recite the Hanuman Chalisa in front of the Chief Minister’s residence. You might even look at the wording of the law and say that the intent of the couple was to create disaffection for the political leadership running the government by picturing them as anti-Hindu. But to call that sedition? A bit too stretched.
Some other recent cases include the case against late journalist Vinod Dua for suggesting that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi was responsible for mismanagement of the Covid pandemic (this was quashed by the Supreme Court), at least ten people who were arrested for allegedly celebrating Pakistan’s victory over India in cricket; and an Assam woman who was booked for having lunch on a tablecloth that resembled the Indian flag.
One of the terms most thrown about whenever sedition is mentioned is that it is ‘colonial legacy’—a nod to its pre-independence history. However, one should not forget that its misuse has sharply spiked in the last few years. According to data from the Home Ministry, the number of cases registered under the section is up over 150 percent just between 2014 and 2019 (Note: these numbers dropped in 2020, perhaps due to the pandemic). So it is more a case of governments suddenly falling in love with a colonial tool in recent years.
That was not to say that it was just BJP governments that merrily played this fiddle. Kerala, for instance, has around 41 sedition cases pending, and all but one of those cases contain charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, too. Therefore, the Supreme Court order will not be of much succor to most people charged under the section. The most abuse was in troubled states such as Assam, where 56 cases were filed between 2014 and 2019—not one of them led to a successful conviction.
Indeed, the sedition law’s overuse was becoming more and more blatant. Last year, when the union government arrested climate activist Disha Ravi under this provision, the bail hearings made it clear that the government had scant evidence to prove their case. This wasn’t an isolated case. In 2019, the conviction rate in sedition cases had fallen to three percent. So, the accused would live with the stigma of being seditious, only to be quietly let off years later.
Over the years the government has also updated its own toolkit to handle inconvenient citizens. The UAPA has now been updated with draconian provisions that are far graver than what sedition offers. We are also seeing that the government is slapping UAPA cases with much more alacrity—if India saw about 500 sedition cases over the last seven years, about 10,550 Indians have been arrested under UAPA (with just 253 convictions).
Then there are special laws in states. Kashmir journalist Fahad Shah was arrested under sedition provisions in February. The moment he was out on bail, he was rearrested under the much more draconian Public Safety Act, under which the authorities can keep an accused in jail for up to two years without trial.
In the Disha Ravi case, the Additional Sessions Judge who granted bail observed that “the offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments.” This is what these cases were becoming. Governments that were being questioned forgot the difference between the State (the country as a sovereign entity) and the people who ran the state (constitutionally elected governments). Governments were never protected from criticism. In fact, the Constitution encourages it. With these cases finding less favour with the courts, its days were numbered.
In most of these cases, the problem is not really the existence of the law in the rule book. The problem is its indiscriminate use, almost as a political tool to silence critics and enemies of the ruling party. However, with governments willing to stretch the law to assert their dominance, the law had to be shelved, if not bundled away for good.