An Opportunity To Avoid The Use Of A Repressive Colonial-Era Law

31 January 2019 12:09 pm

Mr. Arvind Kejriwal
Chief Minister Delhi
Government of NCT of Delhi
31 January 2019

Subject: An Opportunity To End The Use Of A Repressive Colonoial Era Law

Dear Chief Minister,

Greetings from Amnesty India. I write this letter to you as your government considers whether or not Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and six others should be prosecuted for alleged sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, and other offences. 

While your government decides what must be done, it would be a good time to remember Mahatma Gandhi, who was also imprisoned under this law. Mahatma Gandhi called the sedition law “the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”.  Yet even today, in independent India, this abusive colonial-era relic of a law continues to be used to silence dissent.

Convictions for sedition cases are rare, and the law has now become a way to suppress political speech by subjecting critics of the government to lengthy criminal proceedings.  Between 2014 and 2016, 179 people were arrested for allegedly committing sedition, but only two people were convicted. Over 90 per cent of cases are pending trial.

One of the sedition cases registered in that time period was against Amnesty India. Like Kanhaiya Kumar and the others, we were branded ‘anti-national’ and criminalized simply for seeking justice for human rights violations. Nearly two and a half years later, a Bengaluru court has closed the case.

Sir, what you and the Delhi government have here is an opportunity to show that your government is not prepared to stifle dissent and debate in our society by using a law that was enacted by the British empire to repress India’s independence struggle. The sedition law is vague and excessively broad and has been used again and again to arrest journalists, activists and human rights defenders simply for expressing critical views.

The Supreme Court has ruled in the case of Kedar Nath Singh versus State of Bihar that incitement to violence is an essential element of the offence of sedition, and in Shreya Singhal versus Union of India that discussion or advocacy of a particular cause, however unpopular, is at the heart of the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression. Despite these rulings, the sedition law has often been used, as in the case before you, simply as a tool of harassment to suppress legitimate expression.

There is no good way to apply Section 124A. It does not comply with international human rights law. It violates the right to freedom of expression under the Indian Constitution. And it goes against India’s tradition of tolerance.

You and the Delhi government can make the difference that matters.

Yours sincerely,

Aakar Patel
Amnesty India