Citizens charged with sedition await relief and demand compensation

The proposed BNS would throw out the sedition law, making cases infructuous

46-Aisha-Sultana Aisha Sultana | Sanjoy Ghosh

WHILE RAJ DROH―anti-establishment or anti-government―protests or criticism could invite penal action under the Indian Penal Code, the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita 2023 would throw out the sedition law and replace it with provisions for stringent punishment for desh droh (anti-national) activities such as armed rebellion or calls for secession or separatism.

My social life was affected, sections of society called me anti-national, my relatives were harassed and their belongings were seized. The ordeal was a big trauma. ―Aisha Sultana, filmmaker charged with sedition

The proposed law, which reflects India’s revised approach of intertwining national security in all aspects of policy making, can have far-reaching impact for decades-long insurgent movements, especially in Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Mizoram. “The policeman on the ground must be equipped to tackle activities against India,” said a senior security official involved in drafting the bill.

Union home ministry officials said the proposed law brings clarity to the grey area of citizens “criticising government’’―it will no longer be an offence. Admitting that the sedition law has been prone to misuse, they said anti-national activities were different from dissent.

For citizens who have been booked for sedition, the charges are expected to become infructuous under the proposed law. “I went through all the procedures, my social life was affected, sections of society called me anti-national, my relatives were harassed and their personal belongings, like laptop, were seized by the police. The ordeal was a big trauma,’’ said filmmaker Aisha Sultana, 27, from Lakshadweep.

She had been charged with sedition in 2021 after criticising the island administrator. Her lawyer K.A. Akbar, said: “The charges under 124A (sedition) should go from the charge-sheet. But the charges under 153B (promoting enmity) may remain.”

Meanwhile, in cases where the accused is booked for more than one offence, there is fear that the proposed law could draw them into another quagmire of draconian laws.

Manipuri journalist Kishorchandra Wangkhem was booked twice for sedition (2018, 2020), twice under the National Security Act and once for defamation. “In the first case [of sedition], I was trying to explain that the patriotism of Rani Jhansi was not historically linked to Manipur,” he said. “My aim was to emphasise that the younger generation should learn about the struggles of our leaders from Manipur.” The second case, he said, was a result of him raising his voice against a racial slur. He says those who were given jail term in sedition cases must be compensated by the government. “Is it enough to say the law was outdated? What happens to social stigma and suffering of families?” he asked.

Lubayathi Rangarajan, lawyer at Article 14, which documented the role of states and courts in handling 8,000 sedition cases in the country between 2010 and 2021, said mere efforts to depart from methods used by the British Raj were not enough. She also wondered whether the distinction between government and nation could be made just by renaming the existing criminals laws.

The onus is on the lawmakers and the policeman on the ground to implement the law in its letter and spirit. The spirit of fairness and nationality, not vested interests.