School charged with sedition over a play

Frequent use of draconian law to crush dissent

Politics

February 8, 2020

/ By / Kolkata

Policemen made it a routine to visit the school in the morning and spend the whole day at Shaheen Primary High School in Bidar

The management of a school in Karnataka is charged with sedition following a school play that mocked Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Police all over India are increasingly turning to one of the most draconian laws to crush dissent.

Amma (Mother), Modi is asking us to show documents of our father and grandfather. If not, he is telling us to leave the country,” asks a child to another who plays the mother.

The mother responds: “If anyone asks for documents, hit them with slippers.”

These are the lines from a stage drama that has got the management of Shaheen Primary and High School in Bidar, Karnataka charged with a sedition case on a complaint filed by Neelesh Rakshal, allegedly a member of the ABVP, the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party on January 26. Policemen made it a routine to visit the school in the morning and spend the whole day there. On February 2, the police visited the school and interrogated kids (aged 9-12) for the fourth time about the play they performed. The interrogation lasted for nearly two hours where the students were asked about who wrote the play, who helped them rehearse, who taught them the lines, etc. Not all the seven kids who were interrogated participated in the play.

Fareeda, the in-charge of the school’s primary section, and Najumunissa, the mother of a Class 6 student are the two people who have been arrested. The management of Shaheen School was also booked for ‘promoting enmity between different groups’ under Sections 124(A) and 153(A) of the Indian Penal Code. The complainant alleged that the school authorities ‘used’ the students to perform a drama on January 21, where they ‘abused’ Modi for introducing the CAA and NRC. After pictures of men in uniform questioning little children went viral, two women from the Child Welfare Council have been present from the third day onwards.

Children from Classes 6, 7 and 8 who were in the play were questioned nearly four times, the school administration said on February 3. They are asked – “Who scripted the play?” and “Did the teacher instruct you?”

“They are kept out of the class for four to five hours regularly. The deputy superintendent of Police comes around 1 pm. They will question the children till 4 o’clock. This is what has been happening for the last four days. We don’t know why they have put sedition section on it. It is beyond the imagination of any reasonable person,” said the school’s CEO Thouseef Madikeri.

However, after the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights sought a report from police in Bidar over questioning students in school, the officials ended their stringent questioning of the students on February 5.

Abusing the law

As per a statement by Child Rights Groups, Teachers and Educationists, the act is a “blatant violation of the Juvenile Justice Act (2015), the New Town station police have repeatedly interrogated the school children, some as young as 9, without allowing their parents to be present, for hours at a stretch…The interrogation of children goes against one of the closely held tenets of a democratic order, which is that education should be about learning to question the world around you.”

“What is also deeply disturbing is the invocation of Section 124A of the IPC which is the sedition law to arrest a teacher and a parent who were allegedly involved with the staging of the play. This is a clear misapplication of the law which is based on a failure appreciate the fact that India is governed by the Indian Constitution which is the supreme law of the land. This marks a new low in our democracy,” the statement further adds.

Interestingly, however, the police and the government turned a blind eye when the management of Sri Rama Vidyakendra High School, located in Dakshina Kannada in Karnataka re-enacted the demolition of Babri Masjid to the chants of Shri Ramachandra ki jai (All hail, Lord Rama), at a school event on December 16. Union minister of chemicals and fertilisers D V Sadananda Gowda, Puducherry governor Kiran Bedi and several Karnataka ministers were present at the event.

A video of the re-enactment, where students, dressed in white and saffron, were seen rushing to a huge poster of Babri Masjid and bringing it down even as a narrator is heard saying on the loudspeaker, “They demolish the structure with anything they could get, with the enthusiasm of and wrath of Hanuman, they bring down the structure. Bolo Shri Ramachandra ki jai!”

The Karnataka state government is widely seen as endorsing an aggressive policy to intimidate protesters against the CAA. Several activists have questioned the state government against the sedition charge filed against the school as nothing in the play was provocative enough to justify the levelling of such a charge nor the play portrayed the slightest hint of violence that could incite persons to attempt to overthrow the state, what was the reason for slapping sedition, activists asked.

Karnataka home minister Basavaraj Bommai has justified the Bidar district police’s decision and said, “What was said by the child was very, very abusive and in bad taste against the Prime Minister…. So everything has been done as per law.”

What is understood of the muscular State is that it is becoming more and more intolerant and any dissent of any nature or even criticism of policies and speeches is now considered seditious.

The numbers game

With the number of sedition cases on the rise, the government seems to have lost track of exact number. “Approximately 233 people have been slapped with sedition charges for their alleged anti-national activities in the last five years,’’ was all that union minister of state for home G Kishan Reddy could tell the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Parliament, earlier this week. Assam and Jharkhand each recorded the highest number of sedition cases, 37 each, between 2014 and 2018, while the northern state of Haryana saw 29 cases in the period. As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the charge of sedition under section 124A of the IPC was applied against 70 people in 2018, 51 people in 2017, 35 in 2016, 30 in 2015 and 47 in 2014, Reddy added.

The most recent case added to the growing list is the one against the management of Shaheen School in Karnataka and another was filed against a doctorate student of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), for his alleged ‘inflammatory’ speeches delivered during protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Sharjeel Imam, who is pursuing his PhD at the JNU’s Centre for Historical Studies has been booked in sedition cases lodged across several states. Sedition cases were also filed against a student in Karnataka and a woman in Mumbai as they were holding placards carrying the message “Free Kashmir” during protests against CAA.

This is not the first time that the government is targeting educational institutions. In January 2019, the Delhi Police filed a charge sheet against people, including student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya, in a sedition case for allegedly raising ‘anti-national slogans’ during an event at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in February 2016.The central government, which controls Delhi police, was criticised for using the sedition law as a  political tool by raking up the issue three years. Critics have attacked the government by accusing it of trying to suppress dissent and especially the youth by applying one of the most draconian laws in the country.

The sedition saga

Bizarre as it may sound, but it is only in India, the world’s largest democracy, where  people have been charged with sedition for liking a Facebook post, drawing cartoons, asking a provocative question in a university exam, not standing up in a cinema when the national anthem was being played or criticising a yoga guru. Divya Spandana, an Indian actress and politician was charged with sedition by an advocate who had filed a private complaint of sedition against the actor in 2016 for saying “Pakistan is not hell, people there are like us.” The frivolous complaint was duly rejected by the Junior First Class Magisterial Court in Madikeri in Karnataka which observed that Pakistan was not officially an enemy state, and that praising its citizens did not amount to sedition.

Yet, the government presses on, without any regard to whether the cases hold any water or have any chance of success in the courts. Its objective seems to be simply stifle dissent by using a law that would make any accused face the courts for several years and often spend months, if not years, in jail before the charges against them are quashed. In a report titled Stifling Dissent: The Criminalisation of Peaceful Expression in India (2016), Human Rights Watch, an American NGO, states that sedition is a colonial-era law in India that is frequently used to curb dissent and is “often used against dissenters, human rights activists, and those critical of the government.”

The government has also been clearly disregarding clear observations of the Supreme Court that has ruled in several cases that a speech could be considered seditious (under Section 124A) only if there is an incitement to violence or intention to create public disorder. However, the government has been using the law even against persons involved in a peaceful protest, recreating the image of the colonial British Raj when the British liberally used the sedition law in an attempt to crush ‘Satyagrah’, the peaceful dissent movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi. The police of independent India has perhaps even surpassed the British colonial forces in using sedition as a political tool. One brazen example was recorded in October 2019, when a sedition case was filed against 49 artists and intellectuals who wrote a letter to the Prime Minster expressing concern at the increasing cases of lynching in the country.

Since its independence in 1947, India had become an example to many other countries, notably in Africa, for attaining freedom through peaceful protests and it helped inspire democratic rule across the globe. However, of late, India has become an inspiration for dictators around the world to learn a trick or two in how to kill dissent, if not the dissenters.

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