Ever since 2020, Siddique Kappan has been in jail, facing a myriad of charges including conspiracy to incite violence, outraging religious feelings, miscellaneous terrorism charges, and most importantly, sedition(discussed further). Why is he facing these charges? For merely fulfilling his obligation as a writer and discussing the propaganda against Muslims and India’s conversion into an authoritarian, Hindu majoritarian state. Essentially, the ugly truth.
He was arrested by the Uttar Pradesh police when he was on his way to hathras, the site of an alleged gang-rape and, the murder of a Dalit woman, in December 2020. Kappan was not doing the extraordinary in following up on this event that took the nation by storm. However, he bore the brunt of it. After being arrested, the Uttar Pradesh police told the Supreme Court that Kappan – a family man of modest means – was not a journalist but only “posed” as one, disregarding a decade’s worth of reporting experience under his belt.
Though the court later acknowledged that Kappan was in fact a journalist, by then he was drowning in red tape and standing in legal quicksand. The article will further discuss the case of Kappan and its various aspects.
Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, also known as the Sedition law simply states that a person will be charged with sedition if they successfully bring or attempt to inculcate and propagate feelings of dissatisfaction toward the government, so established by law. The subjectivity of these grounds is what gives it leeway to be abused and misused, mostly at the hands of the champagne elite. Sir Thomas Macaulay first introduced this colonial law in his draft proposition in 1837. However, it was only included in the IPC through an amendment in 1870. Its primary purpose was to penalize dissidents, rebellions, and several mutinous activities taking shape at the time. Thus essentially, the British implemented this law to curb any opposition and continued oppression under its garb. The popular trial of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, among many others, under the same accurately subsumes the tangent wherein the law’s nuances are overpowered by a singular motive, to suppress criticism.
The lawmakers decided to keep the law even after independence, its current form in the IPC, the sedition law propounds that whoever, by employing words ( spoken or written), by signs, by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or even attempts to spread hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law shall be liable to be punished with a fine, or imprisonment which may extend to three years, or both.
The conviction under this law is vastly dependent on the interpretation of the accused’s actions by the court of law, which varies from court to court. The Delhi High Court said that a fair judge’s obligation is to comprehend each case, the intention in mind and that the speech has to be judged “holistically and fairly without giving undue weight to isolated passages”. Thus, the law has evolved by means of different perceptions owing to the judiciary, in line with the changing dynamics.
However, per reports, ever since 2010, 800 sedition cases have been filed in India against more than 13,000 people. The National Crime Records Bureau’s Report “Crime in India 2020” reports the filing of 70,93 and 73 cases in 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively. Despite the increase in sedition cases, the conviction has been consistently low. This low conviction rates demonstrate that Section 124A is being abused and cases are being filed despite the absence of the elements required under the section. The reason for this “filing’ of cases is to trap the alleged “wrongdoers” in long-drawn-out legal battles against journalists and writers, in an attempt to discourage and dissuade them from reporting about the issues that offend those who instigate these cases, which, more often than not belong to the majority.
There have been instances where politicians and lawmakers have suggested the abrogation of this draconian law. However, since, the law has only been put in abeyance, owing to S.G. Vombatkere v. Union of India (WP (C) 682/2021).There is an urgent need for reforms, which do translate in the real, contemporary world as well, for one too many journalists have suffered at the behest of this law. Institutional changes surrounding the law need to be initiated in order to dent the status quo.
Article 19 (1)- Freedom of Speech and Expression
“Intolerance of dissent from the orthodoxy of the day has been the bane of Indian society for centuries. But it is precisely in the ready acceptance of the right to dissent, as distinct from its mere tolerance, that a free society distinguishes itself.”
Press and its constituents, i.e. journalists are known as the fourth pillar of democracy and enablers of the same, respectively. The Freedom of Speech and Expression is a fundamental right guaranteed to all citizens under the Constitution of India. This right, however, isn't absolute and envisages certain restrictions in order to uphold the security, integrity, and unity of India.
These “restrictions” however, are more often than not, just ways of gatekeeping the archaic “cultural values” and curbing dissent. Thus, this article and the various grounds for the arrest of this right have been in discourse, and the topic of many debates since time immemorial. Freedom of Speech and Expression is paramount in order to maintain the democratic status of a state, especially one like India wherein diversity takes myriad forms, ranging from communities to opinions. If the citizenry of a state is not independent enough to freely express themselves, then their other civil and political rights are also under threat.
In a participative electoral democracy like ours, it is implied that freedom to offend too (within reasonable limits) is also a subset of the article and doesn't constitute “hate speech”. In the absence of a free press, citizens lose their ability to make informed decisions in a free and fair electoral process.
While this case is one of many where the state, via its apparatuses abused the power it had, there is one element here which stood out to me, suggesting evidence of the blatant aforementioned abuse. This element was the charge of “terrorism”. The charge sheet filed back in April 2020 says “In the writing, the Muslims have been portrayed as victims [who] were beaten up by police and were asked to go to Pakistan. It is evident from the writing that it has been done to incite Muslims. These writings of Siddique Kappan, to a great extent, can be classified as communal. During riots, taking the name of a minority and talking about events related to them can incite sentiments. Responsible journalists do not do such communal reporting. Kappan only and only reports inciting Muslims, which is a hidden agenda of PFI [Popular Front of India]. Some stories were written to sympathize with Maoists and Communists.”
This charge allowed Kappan’s detention without bail, even with the lack of any tangible evidence. Nothing from the charge sheet constitutes a crime, in isolation or collectively. Beat writing isn't a crime, neither is sympathizing with a community.
The police accusations against Kappan, if accepted by the courts, will not just further push the boundaries of what is legally credible but will fundamentally undermine or rewrite India’s Constitution. If any of the accusations against Kappan is a crime then every journalist – and indeed any Indian – could be arrested and accused of anything that the police deem to be illegal, regardless of what the law and Constitution say.
The 49th CJI of India, in order to fast-track issues in his short tenure, has sought to issue notices and responses to multiple PILs. One of those petitions was one filed by Siddique Kappan, challenging the rejection of his bail application by the Allahabad High Court. The matter has been posted for final disposal on 9 September.
"PFI is not a terrorist organization. PFI is not a banned organization. I am a journalist. I was going to Hathras to cover the case. What happened is that I was working with a newspaper with PFI. I don't work there anymore," Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal, representing Kappan, reportedly told the court.
The story is still developing and the community of journalists eagerly awaits the final verdict determining the culpability of Kappan.
This “assault” on journalism has grown exponentially, as views continue to become more polarised. So though technically “legal” recourse against journalism is opted by the powerful, the intentions seem malafide, biased, and extra-judicial. This contemptuous approach towards journalism must change, in order for the nation to thrive, for it diametrically opposes the idea of India being the “mother of democracies”. As Kappan’s case illustrates, innocence or guilt is immaterial: the message is that journalism is no refuge for free speech and that India’s laws and Constitution – far from being protective features – will be weaponized against those who do not fall in line.