A schoolteacher and a parent have been in jail since January 30 for two simple lines in a school play that the police claim is seditious? Adv B T Venkatesh spoke to Geeta Seshu a day before he travelled to Bidar in Karnataka to represent the women in a bail application in the sedition case. Today, after hours of arguments, the case is now posted for orders on Feb 14, 2020, which will make it 14 days that they have been in jail.

While New Delhi celebrates a more promising political existence for the next few years, a student in Bidar, Karnakata, awaits a Session’s court’s decision on her mother’s future.

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Her mother, Nazbunnissa, and Fareeda Begum, a teacher of the Shaheen Primary and High School, were arrested on January 30 on charges of sedition. They are lodged in the Bidar district prison. Their crime: that they scripted a play on the CAA, NRP and NPR, performed in the school on January 21, two lines of which have been cited as bringing or attempting to ‘bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government estab­lished by law in India’.

The explanation for the expression “disaffection”, the Indian Penal Code helpfully tells us, includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity. The punishment for this is imprisonment for life.

Nazbunnissa is a domestic worker and single mother. For the last 12 days, neighbours have stepped in to to take care of her daughter.

Other charges levelled on the duo are Secs 504 (Intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace), 505 (2) (Statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes), 153 (a) (Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony) and 34 (Acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code.

Others named in the FIR include the President and management of Shaheen School and Mohammed Yusuf, a parent who shared the video of the play on his facebook page. They have applied for anticipatory bail.

According to reports, the public prosecutor argued in the Bidar Sessions Court that the women would leave the country and may destroy video evidence. The prosecutor also referred to the case of the Mumbai student Kris Chudawala, charged with sedition, along with 51 others, for allegedly shouting slogans in support of JNU scholar Sharjeel Imam at Mumbai’s Pride March.

Adv Venkatesh argued that the two women were hardly a threat to the state, living in a small town like Bidar. The slogans did not create any disturbance or promote disaffection towards the government, much less cause violence.

(Note: The Bombay High Court granted interim relief to Kris Chudawala, in the event of arrest they should be released on a personal bond of Rs 20000. Kris Chudawala will have to appear before Police b/w 11 AM to 2 PM on 12th Feb & appear before them whenever demanded. They’ll have to submit their mobile phone & SIM card. They have been directed to not leave Mumbai & Thane. Hearing on anticipatory bail application on 24th March).

If the arrest and continued incarceration was not enough, the other shocking aspect of this case was the police investigation. The students of the school have been questioned no less than five times by police, seeking to collect evidence against the school management, the teachers and the parent who scripted the play and helped the students rehearse their parts.

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What were the ‘offending’ lines in the play? Did it incite violence and did violence result after the lines were uttered, as multiple judgements of the Supreme Court have said was a staple requirement for the lodging of sedition?

“The entire play was performed by nine year olds and it was just a simple fun school play in the context of the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). There is a conversation between a grandmother and a grandchild about showing documents and the grandmother says her ‘documents’ are six feet under (with her dead and buried husband). The language is in dakkini Urdu and has the direct sharpness and flavor of the local dialect,” says senior advocate B T Venkatesh.

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The play is about the search for documents – the kagaaz nahi dikhayenge because there are no documents to show! The grandmother says ‘who is this Modi to ask for documents. If anyone comes to ask for documents, beat them with chappals’.

That was the only reference, a literally blink-and-you’ll-miss line to what the FIR stated was objectionable and which has cost the schoolteacher and the parent 12 days of freedom. The play continues merrily along and the young student who plays the grandchild goes to the neighbor because she is told they have the documents. But the neighbor says that the government has their documents.

In the video of the play, you can hear a girl’s voice saying ‘ting tong’ to signify the ringing of the neighbour’s doorbell. And then the neighbour’s hilarious explanation of how the government’ has the document: “the rat ate up our documents, the cat ate the rat and the dog ate the cat and the municipal authorities caught the dog. So the BMC has the documents.”

There is much mirth about how documents were thrown in the garbage and, since the municipal workers collected the garbage, the documents were now with the government. The play ends with one student reciting Varun Grover’s poem, Kagaz Nahi Dikhayenge’.

B T Venkatesh
Adv B T Venkatesh

Says Adv Venkatesh, “In the video, you can see clearly that everyone’s enjoying it and laughing at the absurdity of the search for the documents. There’s no violence, no exhortations to violence either. It was all in fun. What kind of country have we got to, where humour is penalized in this manner?”

But clearly, right wing social media trolls and members of the infamous BJP IT cells are active, looking for the most slender of instances to file their complaints. A schoolparent shared a clip of the play on his facebook page and six days later, on January 26, Neelesh, described as a ‘social worker’, lodged an FIR in New Town police station. After some preliminary police investigations, the schoolteacher and a parent were arrested.

The complainant in the Bidar case, according to those in the know, is close to the RSS and his facebook page identifies him as Nilesh Rakshala or Nilesh Jadhav. There are screenshots of him being pictured with Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. The latter, one may remember, had said in a campaign speech in the run up to the Lok Sabha polls last year, that sedition laws would be strengthened if the BJP came back to power.

The right wing mobilization was so persistent that, in the other sedition case against student Nalini who held up a ‘Free Kashmir’ poster in a protest, the bar association in Mysuru resolved not to defend her. However, said Adv Venkatesh, more than a hundred lawyers stood up to defend her, travelling great distances from their home districts and towns and filing vakalatnamas for her!

It is this support, legal and otherwise, that raises hope of resistance to draconian and colonial-era laws like sedition. But, till sedition continues to remain in our statute books, the complaints and arrests will continue unabated, subjecting those charged to a long and punishing process to secure their freedom.

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