An independent database has documented the staggering rise of sedition cases against Indian citizens since the BJP came to power.
A new database has revealed the startling rise of sedition cases in India since the world’s largest democracy came under Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule in 2014.
An independent initiative called Article 14 tracked all cases registered between January 2010 and December 2020 under the Indian Penal Code’s (IPC) section 124A, in which sedition is defined as attempts through words or visuals that bring “into hatred or contempt or excites disaffection against the Government”. Sedition is punishable by life imprisonment with a fine or imprisonment that extends to three years with a fine.
Article 14's database revealed that 65 percent of nearly 11,000 individuals in 816 sedition cases since 2010 were filed after May 2014, when prime minister Narendra Modi took power. They included political opposition figures, journalists, academics and students.
A further 96 percent of cases filed against 405 citizens for criticising politicians and governments over the last decade were registered after 2014.
Of these, 149 were accused of making “critical” and/or “derogatory” remarks against Modi, and another 144 were made against Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister Yogi Adityanath.
There was a 28 percent increase in the number of cases filed each year between 2014 and 2020, and an average of nearly 80 cases annually. This was in contrast to the average of 62 cases annually under the second term (2010-2014) of the United Progressive Alliance administration led by Congress prime minister Manmohan Singh.
The database highlights a surge in cases following protest movements such as those against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in 2019 and the rape of a Dalit teen in UP.
A common thread in the data reveals that the impetus for case increases have been driven by BJP-ruled state governments’ pursuit of critics and protesters. Of the five states with the highest number of cases, a majority were registered during BJP rule in four of them – Bihar, UP, Karnataka and Jharkhand.
While cases in states like UP and Karnataka revolved around offences related to “nationalism”, in central and easter states sedition was being used against left-wing and land-based protestors.
What might count as seditious behaviour could be trivial as holding posters or raising slogans, to social media posts and even private communication.
A joint effort between lawyers, journalists and academics, Article 14 takes its name from the fundamental right conferred by the Indian Constitution, which says: “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.”
Taking over six months to compile, the database used information mined from district court portals, state police websites, high courts and legal websites.
The lawyer heading the project, Lubhyathi Rangarajan, said that the database also intends to track the progress of sedition cases through the judicial system in the coming months.
“It is clear that thousands of people have suffered the consequences of these charges,” said Rangarajan. “Our attempt is to shine a light not just on the fact that process is punishment but also the traumatic impact that these charges have on people’s lives.”
Former Supreme Court judge Madan Lokur, who now serves on Article 14’s advisory board, said that given the current data trends, India’s sedition law “is not being misused, but being abused”.
Since the BJP’s reign began in 2014, dissenting voices and journalists have been increasingly smeared, gagged or attacked – whether through legal or extrajudicial means. Those who oppose the BJP’s ideology and its policies are routinely branded as “anti-national” or corrupt.
Within this hostile environment towards any opposition, sedition charges have been a de-facto strategy for many BJP-ruled state governments in pushing back against any form of dissent, the database found.
During the anti-CAA protests, 22 of 25 sedition cases involving 3,700 people were filed in BJP-ruled states.
Following the Pulwama terrorist attack in February 2019, BJP-ruled states accounted for 26 of 27 sedition cases filed involving 42 individuals for allegedly raising “pro-Pakistan” slogans and “anti-national” messages on social media.
More recently, at least six senior journalists and editors have been slapped with sedition charges for covering farmer protests, along with Congress party politician Shashi Tharoor.
The Press Club of India, Press Association, the Indian Women’s Press Corps, the Delhi Union of Journalists, and the Indian Journalists Union have demanded the withdrawal of cases and pressed for a repeal of the sedition law.
India’s archaic sedition law dates back to when it was introduced in 1870 by British colonial authorities against Indian nationalist leaders and revolutionaries. The law’s removal has been the subject of fierce debate since India’s independence in 1947.