As attacks on press freedom, control of democratic spaces and crackdown on protests increase in India, the tide of authoritarianism seems to be rising under the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government. Amidst all this, two recent databases--one by independent portal, Article 14, on sedition cases in India and the other being parliamentary replies on the use of the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) -- shed light on the use of these two laws for incarcerating instead of punishing dissenting voices.
Crucial findings of data compiled by Article14 trace cases registered between January 1, 2010 and 31 December 31, 2020 under the Indian Penal Code (IPC)’s Section 124A, which deals with sedition, a 151-year archaic law used against Indians by the British colonial government.
According to the data, of 10,938 Indians accused of sedition over the last decade, 65% found themselves so implicated after May 2014, when the Narendra Modi government came to power.
The report’s author Kunal Purohit, an independent journalist, writes: “Much of this increase in sedition cases has been driven by the way BJP-ruled state governments have pursued critics and protesters. The database found that sedition charges were a de-facto strategy for many of these governments, each time they encountered public criticism and protests.”
Speaking with NewsClick, Lara Jesani, member of People’s Union of Civil Liberties, said: “Acts such as the UAPA and sedition, and other draconian laws have been used to silence dissent. While this is not something new, we see an intensification of it. We are seeing a pattern --that a conspiracy is alleged and UAPA is imposed. For most of these cases, trials have not even begun. Such low convictions bolster the idea that the aim here is not to punish or convict anyone but to incarcerate. Therefore, the process itself is the punishment.”
According to the article, till now, six sedition cases have been filed during the farm protests; 25 during anti-CAA(Citizenship Amendment Act) protests; 22 after the Hathras gangrape; 27 after Pulwama attack.
The data of sedition cases over the last decade reveals a 28% rise in such cases—in violation of Supreme Court guidelines—especially against critics and protests since 2014
In all, 96% of sedition cases filed against 405 Indians for criticising politicians and governments over the last decade were registered after 2014, with 149 accused of making “critical” and/or “derogatory” remarks against Modi, 144 against Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister Yogi Adityanath.
Of the five states with the highest number of sedition cases filed during the period, a majority were registered during when BJP was in power in four of them—Bihar, UP, Karnataka and Jharkhand.
‘Process as punishment’
Another crucial data point that came out last week during the ongoing parliamentary debates bolsters the argument of
a rising tide of authoritarianism in India. Union Minister of State for Home G. Kishan Reddy informed the Upper House that as per the 2019 Crime in India Report compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), only 2.2 % of cases registered under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) between the years 2016 and 2019 ended in convictions by court. Moreover, the total number of persons arrested under the Act in 2019 is 1,948.
Speaking with NewsClick, Advocate Abu Bakar Sabbaq said: “There are two things to understand here, that both UAPA and Section 124A, are on the same lines as both Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002. For us, the main concern is the trial, as charges are at times not framed for as long as 10 years. While TADA still allowed for bail to be given on medical basis, UAPA has no such ground, since there is no policy of accountability or compensation making the Act more draconian.”
Describing how the ‘process’ itself is proving to be ‘punishment’ he said: “There is creation of evidences instead of collection of any evidence. Even in cases where people have been falsely implicated, we do not find any action against officials. The use of the law to silence dissenting voices is worse for suspects than for those who have been convicted.”
Recall that India slipped from the 27th rank in 2014 to 41st in the Democracy Index 2019 released by the Economist
Intelligence Unit (EIU). The index ranks 167 countries on as many as 60 indicators, including the country’s electoral process, pluralism, civil liberties, democratic culture and political participation.