The sedition charge slapped on JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar has led to political and legal debate. It is a charge used frequently in the country, with government data showing that IPC section 124A (sedition) was invoked 47 times in 2014, making up 27 per cent of all charges under the category “offences against the state”.
Last year was the first time that the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) published data on offences against the state, in particular on sedition.
The frequency of sedition charges, it turns out, is very low in some states that have been hit by militancy. For instance, in Jammu and Kashmir, which often sees anti-India slogans chanted in public gatherings in the Valley, not one case of sedition was registered by the police in 2014. The state had five cases under the category offences against the state.
“If we begin to slap sedition charges against those chanting anti-India slogans in the Valley, we will have to file at least 20 cases every day. There is no point doing that; it will only worsen the situation,” a senior J&K police officer said. “In fact, when Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani travels to Delhi and addresses gatherings, his speeches as just as seditious. But he has never been booked in Delhi either.”
The frequency of sedition cases is the highest in Left-wing Extremism-hit Bihar and Jharkhand which account for 72 per cent of all cases of sedition in the country — but the state worst-affected by Maoist violence, Chhattisgarh, has only one case of sedition.
In Jharkhand, all 18 offences against the state were registered as sedition cases, while 16 of Bihar’s 20 cases saw section 124A invoked. Senior police officers in both states, who did not wish to be named, said most of these were against suspected Maoists.
The highest number of cases under “offences against the state” was 56 in Assam; only one of these cases was registered under charges of sedition. Meghalaya, which has 32 such cases, has not slapped sedition charges in any of these. Assam’s single sedition case is the only one in the Northeast, out of 100 “offences against the state” in the region.
Delhi had no such offence registered in 2014. Kerala had seven such cases, of which five are of sedition.
From Binayak to Hardik
The law of sedition has been called into question in various quarters. Several Supreme Court judgments have held that allegedly seditious speech and expression may be punished only if the speech is an “incitement” to “violence”, or “public disorder”.
In a case of sedition filed on grounds similar to the one against Kanhaiya, the Supreme Court had acquitted an accused booked by police for chanting ‘Khalistan Zindabad’ in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
It is not the first time charges of sedition have been slapped on students. In March, 2014, 67 Kashmiri students of Swami Vivekanand Subharti University in Meerut were charged with sedition after they allegedly cheered Pakistan while watching the Asia Cup cricket final on TV. The charges were dropped amid a political outcry.
That August, Salman Zalman, 25, student of philosophy from Thiruvananthapuram, was arrested on charges of sedition for not standing up while the national anthem was being played in a theatre.
In September 2012, authorities in Mumbai arrested political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi on sedition charges after a complaint that his cartoons mocked the Constitution and national emblem. The charges were dropped a month later after protests broke out in public and on social media.
Earlier, social rights activist and doctor Binayak Sen has faced the same charge.
The latest sedition case to hit the headlines was in October 2015, when Gujarat police arrested Hardik Patel, spearheading protests to demand a quota for his community, and charged him with sedition in two separate cases.
Notably in August, 2015, the NDA government in Maharashtra issued new guidelines to police on sedition which even included criticism of the government in its ambit. The government was later forced to withdraw the guidelines following a High Court order.
Although there are 12 sections of IPC that deal with offences against the state, NCRB takes into account five sections. These range from Section 121 to Section 124A and involve charges such as waging war against the nation to assaulting the president or governor, besides sedition.