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Human Rights Watch wants India's sedition laws amended, as they have jeopartised freedom of expression

A 2012 demonstration against N-plant in Tamil Nadu
By Our Representative
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has strongly opposed “continued efforts” by government authorities in India to use the sedition law against activists and protesters. While the latest incident relates to immigration officials on September 16, 2014 preventing environmental activist SP Udayakumar from traveling out of the country because of sedition cases filed against him for leading protests at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu, there is enough evidence why Parliament should act quickly to repeal the colonial-era sedition law, repeatedly misused to harass activists and protesters, it said.
The top international rights group in its statement issued from its New York headquarters has particularly taken objection to the fact that, to quote, “India’s sedition law, section 124A of the Penal Code, prohibits any words, either spoken or written, or any signs or visible representation that can broadly cause ‘hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection’ toward the government.”
HRW said, “In a landmark ruling in 1962, Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar, the Supreme Court said that unless the accused incited violence by their speech or action, it did not constitute sedition, as it would otherwise violate the right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution.” Despite this, it added, “Over the years various state governments have disregarded the ruling and accused human rights activists, journalists, writers, and a political cartoonist under the sedition law.”
Pointing towards how the sedition law is against the spirit of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which India ratified in 1979, the HRW said, the covenant “prohibits restrictions on freedom of expression on national security grounds unless they are provided by law, strictly construed, and necessary and proportionate to address a legitimate threat.” This suggests that the sedition law puts “the right to free expression itself in jeopardy.”
Specifically referring to the anti-nuclear protests in Tamil Nadu, where the law has been imposed discriminately, the HRW said, “Since October 2011, police in Tamil Nadu state have filed thousands of complaints against local residents peacefully protesting the Kudankulam plant, accusing them of sedition and other serious crimes. While formal charges have rarely been brought, the complaints leave those targeted at risk of perpetual harassment by the authorities.”
“Indian authorities are misusing the sedition law to intimidate local residents and others who oppose the Kudankulam nuclear plant,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director HRW, adding, “The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the sedition law should only be applied when there is clear incitement to violence. So instead of bringing weak cases to court, the authorities are just filing complaints as harassment.”
The HRW said, instead of allaying the concerns of the fishing and other communities who fear adverse impact on their health and livelihood because of the nuclear plant, “the authorities have accused over 50,000 people of sedition, waging or abetting war against the state, disrupting harmony, insulting national honor, criminal trespass, and unlawful assembly.” It added, “Over 300 police First Information Reports (FIRs) were filed, but after two years, Tamil Nadu police have brought charges in only two cases.”
Interestingly, the HRW said, “While the police reports accuse several people by name, thousands are unnamed, allowing the authorities to abuse their powers by arbitrarily adding other names later. In just one example, FIR 195/12, filed on May 7, 2012, lists SP Udayakumar and 25 others by name, and 2,225 unnamed people as the accused”.
Udayakumar is convener of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), and he was stopped from going to Nepal on September 16 to participate in a United Nations consultation on human rights, and detained and interrogated at the New Delhi airport for over five hours. At 7 p.m., immigration officials released Udayakumar but told him that he should not try to leave the country. They said that Tamil Nadu authorities had put his name on a lookout notice, thereby restricting his travel.

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