Two months into 2021, and the Government of India has already booked at least seven people for sedition. Climate activist Disha Ravi, taken into custody over a toolkit regarding the farmers’ struggle shared by international activist Greta Thunberg, was the first woman this year to be arrested under the Indian Penal Code’s Section 124 A.
The 21-year-old’s detention, and the subsequent arrest of activist Nikita Jacob, are the latest additions to a disconcerting list of women activists who were put in imprisonment for “seditious” statements or actions in the last three years. However, Ravi’s arrest on February 13, 2021 caught media attention not only because of arbitrary accusations but also the manner in which she was allegedly taken for questioning and not provided with a lawyer before court.
According to Pragatisheel Mahila Sangathan General Secretary Poonam Kaushik speaking to SabrangIndia, “Women are becoming assertive and coming forward to voice their dissent. The Hindutva, patriarchal government cannot take women being assertive and use these laws to suppress them.”
National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data states that in 2019 as many as 96 people were arrested for IPC sedition charges but only one of them was a woman. In comparison, 56 people were arrested in 2018 but no woman was detained for the same charge.
Similarly, 2019 data showed that 1,948 people were arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) out of which people were 48 women. In comparison, 38 women out of 1,421 people were arrested under UAPA in 2018.
Moreover, while there is no consolidated data regarding sedition arrests in 2020, media reports were flooded with reports of student activist detainments. Women students collective Pinjra Tod members Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal were charged with sedition. Most notably, student activist Safoora Zargar was detained in April 2020 and in June 2020 and once denied bail despite being 5 months pregnant. She was later released on bail.
“The government wants to send a message to women that they will face these laws if they speak their mind. They are giving the ‘manuvaadi’ message that women’s position is in the house,” said Kaushik.
She pointed out that contrary to this mindset women are leading one of the biggest peasant struggles in history as women farmers play a pivotal role in the on-going farmers’ struggle. She also said that Ravi’s arrest for daring to support farmers was another the latest example of the government’s attempt to silence women. Regarding the repeated use of sedition charges, she also asked, “Why is our “rashtra-premi” government using these sedition laws that were brought by British colonists in 1860? How is this patriotic?”
Variants of Kaushik’s questions have been repeatedly asked of late. Why do we continue to follow British laws? The United Kingdom, from where the laws originated, abolished the law in 2009. Why does India not abolish the law as well? Defenders of Section 124A claim that the law should remain because the social situation in India differs from the UK and other countries.
However, following the Kedarnath vs Bihar case, the Supreme Court stated that merely criticising the government cannot be considered seditious. Many legal experts voiced their opinion over the years that the law must be revised if not abolished.
“In a democratic society, the government is expected to be tolerant of criticism. Simply saying the government is not ‘pro-people’ should not count as sedition,” Judge Abhay Thipsay told SabrangIndia.
He said that there is a vagueness in the law. Even criticism can be brought under it. Therefore, reforms are needed to make it more specific, clear and less ambiguous.
“If the law is made more specific, then, even the person [charged] will know what will act as a crime; upto what extent something can be said. If ambiguity is reduced, the law will not be misused,” he said. When asked whether the rising number of sedition cases are a cause for concern, Thipsay said, “Intolerance level is rising.”
Even Kaushik acknowledged the gravity of the rising number of sedition cases levied by a government that is “corporatising everything, even agriculture.”
Over the days, students and peasants in Karnataka, Delhi and other parts of the country protested in support of Ravi, decrying her arrest. For women’s groups and for every person supporting the freedom of expression, Ravi’s arrest has become a “serious matter” as stated by the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) on February 17.
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