Arrests under sedition charges rise but conviction falls to 3%


NEW DELHI: Arrest of Disha Ravi, a 21-year-old green activist from Bengaluru, by Delhi Police on Saturday brings into focus a spike in state and central governments using sedition charges to deal with dissent or criticism even as not even 4% of the accused are convicted.

Between 2016 and 2019, the number of cases filed under Section 124-A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) increased by 160% while the rate of conviction dropped to 3.3% in 2019 from 33.3% in 2016, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

Out of 96 suspects arrested under the charges of sedition in 2019, only two men have been convicted, and no woman.

Another important difference is in the age profiles of those arrested. Most number of arrests under sedition charges in 2019 were in the 18 to 30 age group at 55 including one female (see graphic).

Karnataka had recorded the maximum number of sedition cases in 2019 at 22, followed by Assam (17), Jammu & Kashmir (11) and Uttar Pradesh (10). While J&K was under President’s rule then, the other three states were being ruled by BJP. NCRB said the West Bengal government did not provide the data for 2019.

The number of arrests under charges of sedition and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) was high last year as well, though NCRB data is not available yet.

During the anti-CAA protests last year, Delhi Police had invoked sedition charges against several persons including three young Muslim women. Similarly, Karnataka Police had booked 19-year-old Amulya Leona after she raised “Pakistan zindabad” slogans at a rally during an anti-CAA protest last year.

The Supreme Court had on numerous occasions cautioned law enforcement agencies to not misuse IPC Section 124-A to curb free speech and directed the states to follow the directions stated during Kedarnath versus state of Bihar trial.

During the UPA tenure, the SC struck down sedition charges against Dr Binayak Sen, accused of having links to Maoists and granted him bail despite being convicted by a session court.

In 2018, the law commission in a report on sedition had observed: “While it is essential to protect national integrity, it should not be misused as a tool to curb free speech. Dissent and criticism are essential ingredients of a robust public debate on policy issues as part of vibrant democracy. Therefore, every restriction on free speech and expression must be carefully scrutinised to avoid unwarranted restrictions.”

As per the NCRB report, for cases under trial, 21 were closed due to insufficient evidence or no clue while two were categorised as false and six cases were found to be a dispute of civil nature, based on the final report submitted by the police before the courts.

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