Sedition charge slapped on Assam MLA for “objectionable” comments on quarantine facilities

The complaint was filed on the basis an audio clip which went viral and was allegedly shared by the MLA himself

Sedition ChargeImage

On April 7, Assam MLA Aminul Islam was arrested on some serious charges of sedition after he allegedly made some comments about the quarantine facilities where the Tablighi Jamaat returnees were kept. The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the political party to which he belongs, immediately distanced itself from the comments made by Islam saying they are his personal comments and the party had nothing to do with it. The party in fact issued a statement that the party condemned his comments and that the law must take its own course.

The Telegraph reported that H.R.A. Choudhury, chairman of the Minorities Consultative Committee, Assam, an umbrella body of leading Muslim organisations, also said it was Islam’s personal comment and that the law would take its own course.

Islam, who is a senior opposition and hails from Dhing constituency was arrested on charges of Sections 120B (criminal conspiracy), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion), 124A (sedition) and 295A (outraging religious feelings) of the IPC. He has been sent to 14 days of judicial custody by a local court in Nagaon.

The complaint was made on the basis of a widely circulated audio clip of a conversation between Islam and an unidentified person. In this audio clip, Islam allegedly said that the quarantine centres in Assam were worse than detention centres and he allegedly blamed the state government for sending healthy Tablighi Jamaat returnees to quarantine and that the state government was trying to defame them by tagging them as COVID19 positive patients. Mr. Islam also allegedly accused the state government of conspiring against Muslims and further claimed that the medical staff in the quarantine were harassing the Jamaat returnees  and giving injections to healthy people.

Nagaon’s deputy commissioner Jadav Saikia claimed that the social media was misused by Islam for spreading wrong information. On questioning, Mr. Islam, reportedly confessed that the voice in the clip was his and that he was the one who circulated the audio clip through Whatsapp.

Why sedition?

The charge of sedition, however seems misplaced in this case. The offence is categorised as a non bailable offence for which the punishment is a minimum of three years and can go up to life imprisonment plus fine. 

Sedition, under section 124A of IPC is defined as follows:

Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards,  the Government estab­lished by law in India, shall be punished with im­prisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with impris­onment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine. 

This section within Indian criminal law has been widely misused by governments, especially of late. There has been much debate on the necessity of retaining a section in our law that harks back to the laws of the colonial era law when we were under a repressive regime under the British. How does such a section merit existence in a democracy? Does it not give unbalanced power to the state and its law enforcement? The charge of sedition was used by our colonizers, the British government, to discourage criticism of the government, severely curtailing both freedom movement and expression. The need of the law of sedition in a democracy, with a duly elected government is far from justified. Any valid criticism of the government may also be classified as sedition if it has a tendency to excite contempt towards the government.

In the recent past as well, charge of sedition has been arbitrarily used by governments, specially in the background of ardent protests across the country against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). For example, in the case of the Karnataka school play which criticised the Prime Minister, sedition was slapped on the principal of the school and a parent of one of the school children who participated in the play. Further, in Jharkhand around 3,000 people were slapped with sedition charge for carrying out a protest rally against CAA without taking requisite permission. This case was however dealt with by the state government by dropping the charge of sedition against the protesters.

In the present case, however, the statements of Mr. Islam may be perceived as being false news and wrong information being passed on by him. This is surely not a one-off incident where people knowingly or unknowingly pass on information which may be false and end up criticising the government basis the same. While this may deserve a rap especially at the time of national crisis that this pandemic has become, surely the charge of sedition is not justified. There are other laws that take care of such offences, especially in the current times when a few laws have been specially invoked to deal with the epidemic outbreak of COVID19.

The section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, under which COVID19 has been declared a “notified disaster” seems ideal in this case.

54. Punishment for false warning.—Whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic, shall on conviction, be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine. —Whoever makes or circulates a false alarm or warning as to disaster or its severity or magnitude, leading to panic, shall on conviction, be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine.”

Given the current situation where the country is dealing with an unprecedented health crisis, the government’s focus should be on dealing with it by making use of suitable laws instead of invoking serious charges on relatively less serious offences. This will not only help the justice system to cope with the burden of cases but will also help the law enforcement focus primarily on enforcing epidemic related laws.


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