In July, during the course of preliminary hearings on a bunch of petitions that challenged the sedition law, the Chief Justice of India, N V Ramana, expressed concern over the misuse of the law and the lack of accountability of executive agencies. The Supreme Court’s stance lent weight to the growing criticism that the colonial-era law was being increasingly misused by an overreaching state to curb citizens’ liberties, including free speech. In recent times, the Court has been steadily raising the bar on sedition by calling out the lack of rigour and due process in the imposition of the archaic law. It has pointed to the low conviction rate in these cases that have, according to NCRB data, shown a significant spurt since 2016. In this backdrop, the 5,000-page chargesheet filed by the UP Special Task Force against Delhi-based journalist Siddique Kappan only confirms the many fears and anxieties that have been expressed by civil liberties groups, and endorsed by the apex court.
The chargesheet makes ludicrous allegations against Kappan, who was arrested a year ago, while on the way to Hathras in UP, to report the murder of a Dalit woman. Kappan was booked under the stringent UAPA, and also charged with sedition (Section 124 A of IPC). He has been accused of conspiring to stoke unrest and riots — the chargesheet claims that Kappan did not write like a “responsible” journalist, “only and only reports to incite Muslims”, and sympathised with Maoists and Communists. It has presented sections from 36 articles Kappan wrote in Malayalam — on the anti-CAA protests, riots in Northeast Delhi, the Nizamuddin Markaz gathering during Covid — as evidence. The STF has appended a case diary note, which, while discussing an article Kappan wrote during the protests against the CAA in Aligarh Muslim University, says, “In the writing, the Muslims have been portrayed as victims (who were beaten by police and were asked to go to Pakistan).” Kappan has also been accused of serving as a “think tank” of Popular Front of India (PFI), a radical Islamist outfit. It would be stretching these “allegations” unbearably to think that they could constitute sedition. Clearly, the UP STF is attempting a new definition of the offence, wherein any disagreement with, and criticism of, the government makes the grade.
The chargesheet against Kappan is an enormously disturbing document that militates against the Supreme Court’s attempts to read down the sedition law and curb its misuse. It raises the very fear the Court has flagged — of executive agencies severely constricting individual liberties and criminalising dissent by wielding a vaguely worded law.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on October 2, 2021 under the title ‘The new sedition’.