Monday, May 20, 2024

Experts in N-E point to misuse of sedition law to choke legitimate dissent

Though not many sedition cases have been reported from the northeastern states, lawyers and experts in the region felt that the law must be abolished so that the party in power could not use sedition to suppress voices of dissent.

Three youths were arrested in November 2021 in Cachar district in Bengali-dominated southern Assam for allegedly defacing a government hoarding in Assamese.

The Assam police arrested journalist Anirban Roy Choudhury and Barak Democratic Front (BDF) chief convener and lawyer Pradip Datta Roy in November 2021 after they criticised police action and the Assam government for using the Assamese language instead of Bengali in government hoardings.

Choudhury and Datta Roy have been charged under 124A (sedition), 153-A (promoting enmity between different groups) and other stringent sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

Choudhury had written an editorial in his news portal, ‘Barak Bulletin’ criticising the use of Assamese language and Datta Roy objected to the use of only Assamese language in government hoardings about the “Jal Jeevan Mission”.

Choudhury got bail from the court within a few hours on the day of his arrest but Datta Roy was in jail for 11 days before getting bail.

Both Choudhury and Datta Roy argued that the Assamese language was used in government hoardings undermining the Assam Official Language (Amendment) Act 1961.

Choudhury in his editorial also flayed socio-cultural organisations and the civil society of Barak Valley for not standing up to the alleged imposition of Assamese in the region.

The Language Act stipulates the use of Bengali for administrative and various official purposes in Bengali-majority Barak Valley or southern Assam, which comprises the three districts of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi.

Datta Roy, a senior lawyer of the Gauhati High Court, told IANS that after the historic language movement of 1961 in which 11 people lost their lives in police firing, Assam’s Language Act was amended, making Bengali the official language of Barak Valley, inhabited by more than four million people, mostly Bengali.

“Putting up government hoarding written in Assamese violated the Language Act. Three more people were martyred when massive protests were undertaken in 1972 and 1986 against the conspiracy of imposing Assamese language in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley region,” Datta Roy said.

Demanding immediate abolition of the sedition law, Datta Roy said that it has been misused by the party in power against its opponents and critics.

Another senior lawyer of the Tripura High Court Purushuttam Roy Barman said that the colonial law under the IPC was enacted by the British in 1870 and in 2022, the Supreme Court asked the government to suspend the Act for the time being.

He said that recently the Law Commission in its 279th report has recommended the retention of section 124A of the IPC which contains the law of sedition.

“Commission has recommended enhanced punishment for such offences in the name of national security. Seven years to life imprisonment recommended by the Law Commission,” Roy Barman, who is also the founder Secretary of the Tripura Human Rights Organisation, told IANS.

He said that in recent years with the detention of many people in different parts of the country, the government misused the law to suppress different voices.

“Criticising government policies and decisions or to express the voice of dissent is always permitted as per article 19 (2) of the Constitution. Freedom of speech is the right of every citizen enshrined in the Constitution,” said Roy Barman, who is the president of the Tripura High Court Bar Association.

Demanding the immediate repeal of the law, he said that criticising the government is not an act against the nation.

Curtailment of free speech would never strengthen democracy, he pointed out.

A Congress leader in Agartala said that the BJP government was planning to make the law more “draconian” and wanted to send out a message before the next general election that it would be used against Opposition leaders.

The CPI-M politburo considers the recommendations of the Law Commission on tweaking the sedition clause of the IPC to be inconsistent with and negating the Supreme Court’s observations.

The Supreme Court had stayed the operation of the Sedition Act until the Union government took appropriate legislative steps to remove this anachronistic law from the statute books.

“The Law Commission, however, appears to have further strengthened the provisions of the sedition law by extending the minimum jail term from the earlier three to seven years. These recommendations are ominous as they come in the background of the manner in which the ED and CBI are being brazenly misused to target leaders of the opposition parties,” the CPI-M politburo said in a statement.

The Left party demanded the repeal of the “anachronistic sedition law”.

(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at sujit.c@ians.in)

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