Image credit: Times of India

Courts have once again found no substance in flimsy accusations of sedition slapped by over-zealous police, reports Anjuman Ara Begum.

Courts have once again found no substance in flimsy accusations of sedition slapped by over-zealous police, reports Anjuman Ara Begum.*

Image credit: Times of India

In yet another case of overreach of the sedition law in Assam, Rajina Parbin Sultana was arrested on May 15, 2021, on charges of ‘dishonouring’ the national flag along with five others. On June 8, 2021, she was granted bail and the Gauhati High Court observed: “The material collected during the course of investigation as available in the case diary is not sufficient to hold a prima facie view about the offence defined under section 124 A IPC.” Click here for the Gauhati High Court order.

On May 14, 2021, Rajina Parbin Sultana along with Rafikul Hussain, Mehjabin Hasin, Jahidul Islam, Hasan Mustafijur Rahman and Rasedul Hoque had a lunch party on the occasion of Eid at Tengnamari village of Abhayapuri town in Assam. Next day, a picture showing them dining went viral because the table cloth resembled the Indian national flag. Social media posts brimming with hate speech demanded strict action against them for ‘disrespecting the Indian nation’. After a Bongaigaon-based unit of the Bajrang Dal informed the police, an FIR was filed on May 15, 2021. The police tweeted that the persons who had ‘dishonoured’ the Indian National flag by using it as a table cloth during a meal in the house of Rajina Parbin Sultana had been apprehended and a case had been registered.

The case was filed under Section 2 of the Prevention of Insult to National Honour Act, 1971 and Section 124 A IPC was also added. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code defines sedition as “any action – whether by words, signs or visible representation – which “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India.” After eight days, five of the accused were released on bail, however, Rajina continued to be in custody for 23 days till she finally secured her bail.  Section 2 of the Prevention of Insult to National Honour Act, 1971 prescribes imprisonment up to three years and fine.

Guwahati-based human rights lawyer Aman Wadud who is associated with the case as a legal counsel said, “The seized material was not the national flag as per the National Flag Code of India, 2002. And even if it was a national flag, the offence does not amount to sedition.” Police wanted to further extend her detention and argued that if the accused was released it would create a law and order problem and that she might once again commit a similar offence. Rajina’s lawyer argued that arresting someone anticipating commission of an offense amounts to preventive detention, in which case constitutional norms were not followed. Her lawyer also informed that Rajina is a school teacher and the incident has affected her social status and reputation in her personal as well as professional life.

It is a well-known fact that sedition law in India has been systematically abused.  According to some estimates, between 2016 to 2019, there was an increase of 160% of sedition charges in India while the rate of conviction is 3.3%. On April 6, this year a Guwahati based writer Sikha Sarma was also arrested and sent to judicial custody for her comment on social media on the killings of soldiers by Maoists in Chhattisgarh. She was arrested under several sections including the IPC 124A [sedition]. She was later granted bail by the Gauhati High Court on April 25 on the ground of inconsistency of the sedition charges and the fundamental right to freedom of expression.

Statistics available from the Assam Assembly session of February 2019 show that a total of 251 cases of sedition were filed against individuals and organisations in Assam in between 2016-2019.  In 2020, political leaders like Akhil Gogoi and writers and activists like Hiren Gohain and Manjit Mahanta were slapped with charges of sedition for protesting against CAA. An FIR was filed on January 9, 2020 at Latashil police station of Guwahati charging them under Sections 120(B), 121, 123 and 124(A) of the IPC. Gauhati High Court observed: “it does not appear to this Court that any such statement was made by the petitioner Nos 1 and 3, in their speeches, in the meeting involved in this case, requiring their custodial interrogation.” Manjit Mahanta however managed to obtain an anticipatory bail soon after the charges were slapped.

The law on sedition originated during the British era and continues to be overused and misused even today while the offence of sedition and its related law has been repealed in Britain and many other countries. The Supreme Court has indicated review of the law on sedition in the light of its gross misuse and we can only hope that the court holds it as unconstitutional and decriminalises free expression.

*Anjuman Ara Begum is a researcher and freelance journalist based in Guwahati.

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