Bidar/Bengaluru: “I didn’t write anything in the script, I just admitted doing it, so the police don’t go after my daughter,” said Nazibunnisa, 27, the mother of a 11-year-old girl, when we met her on 11 February 2020 inside north Karnataka’s Bidar jail, where she was imprisoned for 15 days.
Nazibunnisa (she uses one name), a single mother dressed in black, was charged with sedition, as was Fareeda Begum, 50, headmistress of an award-winning group that runs Shaheen Primary School, where Nazibunnisa’s 11-year-old daughter studied and had acted on 21 January in a school play that mocked the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A widow, Nazibunnisa was arrested by the Bidar police, whose preliminary inquiry suggested that the script of the play was tweaked by someone who added an “insulting” statement against Modi. The police filed criminal cases under sections of 504, 505(2), 124 (A), 153 (A) and 34 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for sedition and promoting enmity between different groups after a complaint from a “social activist” affiliated with right-wing Hindu groups.
Released on bail on 15 February 2020, Nazibunnisa and Begum appear to have been, experts said, victims of a police vendetta, possibly conducted on political orders to intimidate the school, parents and students and others statewide. The police did this by violating the laws of sedition and juvenile justice, they said.
Indeed, Sessions Judge Managoli Premavathi, while granting anticipatory bail on 3 March 2020 to the manager of the Shaheen Primary and High School, the president of Allama Iqbal Education Society and founder of the Shaheen Group of Institutions, had this to say: “The drama has not caused any disharmony in the society. Considering all the circumstances, I am of the opinion that the ingredients of Section 124A of IPC (sedition) are prima facie lacking."
Why The Use of Sedition Law Was Illegal
The IPC defines someone as guilty of sedition—a 150-year-old law promulgated by a colonial government—if they “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 1962, the Supreme Court of India (in Kedar Nath Singh Vs State of Bihar) allowed the sedition law to stand with the caveat that it could be used if "a person could be prosecuted for sedition only if his acts caused incitement to violence or intention or tendency to create public disorder or cause disturbance of public peace".
Judge Premavathi said during a 3 March bail hearing that the police had no case:
“But the dialogue, if read as a whole, no where (sic) they make out sedition against the Government and as such ingredients of Section 124A IPC. What the children have expressed is that, they will have to leave the country if they do not produce the documents and except that, here is nothing to show that, he has committed the offence of sedition. The dialogue, in my considered opinion, does not go to bring into hatred or or disaffection towards the Government. In the entire nation it is found that there are rallies and protests for and against, CAA and NRC, and as a citizen everybody has got the right to express disapprobation of the measures of the government with a view to obtain their alteration by lawful means. The dialogues were during the course of enacting a play in school. The said play has been enacted on 21 January, but information has been lodged on 26 January. If at all it was not uploaded on Facebook, even the public could not have come to know about the dialogue of that drama."
The Law Commission of India backs that interpretation. “In a democracy, singing from the same songbook is not a benchmark of patriotism and people should be at liberty to show their affection towards their country in their own way,” said the Commision in a 2018 consultation paper.
“As citizens, Indians have the right to criticise the government, and criticism cannot be construed as sedition,” Supreme Court Justice Deepak Gupta said in September 2019. “Criticism of the executive, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the armed forces cannot be termed sedition.”
Sedition law expert Maitreyi Krishnan, affiliated with the Alternative Law Forum, a legal advocacy, said the police case was a misuse of sedition, which can only be applied where there is a threat to law and order. This, she said, had been made clear by previous Supreme Court judgements and “established principles of law”.
If the plaintiff believed the prime minister was defamed, he could have filed a defamation case, said Krishnan.
"If it was against the PM, can anyone lodge a complaint that he (PM) is hurt?” defence lawyer B T Venkatesh was quoted as saying in court on 12 February 2020. “According to the courts, it's the person who is abused who needs to come and speak up. He is the person who needs to come and lodge a complaint."
Of the police charge that the play created enemity between different groups, 153 (A) of the IPC, the judge said: “When there is no other religion in the entire drama, there is no question of causing disharmony between two religions which is the main requirement of the offence punishable".
`They Were Frightening Us While Asking Questions’
“Dara dara ke pooch rahe they (they were frightening us while asking questions),” Nazibunnisa’s 11-year-old daughter, the student at the centre of the police investigation, told us.
The police conducted their investigation—as photos and videos reveal—by interrogating the students, initially in uniform and after criticism in plainclothes. The manner they did this brought more violations of the law to the fore.
“Thoo, kagaza kahan se lau main (Thoo, where should I get papers from?),” is her response in a video of the play. “My father-in-law is dead and in the grave. Should I dig the grave and get the documents? Whoever asks me for documents, I will ask him for his documents, and if he can’t produce them, I will beat him with my slippers.”
The girl in the play is responding to a fellow actor who says: “Hamna Modi bola baap-dada ke kagaza ke baare me bataon bola. Nahi dihake to muluk chhod ke jao bola. Modi told us to show our ancestors papers. If you don’t, you’ll have to leave the country, he said.”
“There are a lot of videos and talks going on against the NRC,” said Nazibunnisa. “My daughter might have picked up something from a video or a casual conversation and used it during the play.”
On 1 February, the police interrogated around 60 students, aged between nine and 12, for four hours. Two days later, police in plainclothes interrogated students for the fourth time. Over five rounds of interrogation, the police questioned more than 85 students, and it was clear some of the investigators were in uniform.
Several experts said these interrogation sessions violated the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015, since the police did not allow parents to be present. Shaheen school assistant teacher Mohammad, who uses only one name, said for five days, the police directly took students from class to questioning, for hours at a stretch.
“The (juvenile justice) Board... shall ensure that all procedures are child-friendly and that the venue is not intimidating to the child and does not resemble as (sic) regular courts,” says the Act.
The Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KSCPCR) criticised the Bidar Police for handing over Nazibunnisa’s daughter to the custody of her neighbour after the mother was arrested.
“This is a clear violation of child rights,” said the KSCPCR. “The Commission has taken a serious note of this. Who will be responsible if the child is affected mentally or physically? Handing over a child in a neighbour’s care without obtaining the permission of the Child Welfare Committee is a violation of the Juvenile Justice Act. Separating the child from her mother and delaying court trial is also a violation of the law.”
The Message From The Government
“The message they [the government] are giving is that you should not speak against the government, otherwise we will harass your children,” said Sarim Naved, a Delhi lawyer.
The case involved freedom of expression and not sedition, defence lawyer, B T Venkatesh argued in court. He said that the case was “politically motivated” as it was filed by the worker of a particular political party.
While reports suggested that Nilesh Rakshala was a member of the Bidar chapter of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, he denied any association to the group. Rakshala contended that the play was disrespectful against Prime Minister Modi and claimed that the school forced the children “to act against the nation”.
“This is just to create fear in the minds of people that you can not speak against the government, otherwise, we will do such things, ” said Krishnan, the ALF lawyer.
The role of Bidar police in the case has been questioned by opposition leaders, legal experts and the media. The police were accused (here, here and here) of using the sedition law to stifle criticism against the CAA on orders from political leaders in the BJP, which governs the Centre and the state.
T Sridhar, the Bidar Superintendent of Police (SP) at the time of the incident, told 101Reporters then that the investigation was “underway” and refused any other comment despite repeated requests.
Nagesh D L, who replaced Sridhar as Bidar SP while the case was on, said only this: “(The) Investigation regarding sedition is being investigated, and the findings will decide if legal help is required.”
Asked why Nazibunnisa was arrested, even though she wasn’t named in the first information report (FIR), Nagesh said the investigating officer “thought that it was necessary for the probe”.
State Congress President Dinesh Gundu Rao noted that the police acted with “alacrity” in using the sedition law. “It shows there was some undue influence on the police to take strict action against this institution,” Rao told the media in Bengaluru. “Because it is a minority owned institution... and a community (Muslim) is being targeted.”
Insult Against Country, Alleges ABVP
Various organisations linked with the BJP have alleged the references to Modi an “insult”. How this was made into sedition the police, as we said, are not revealing.
Revan Sidda Jadar, general secretary of the Bidar chapter of the ABVP acknowledged that they filed a complaint with the help of the complainant, Rakshala.
"Shaheen [School] used children as a tool to propagate their agenda,” said Jadar. “They have tried to put anti-national sentiments in the minds of the children.”
The Shaheen Group of Institutions has been honoured by the Karnataka government for their efforts in education and to promote “communal harmony”, said Abdul Qadeer, the school chairperson and recipient of the state’s highest civilian decoration, the Rajyotsava award, and the school only wanted to “create awareness” about the NRC, a contentious issue nationwide.
Qadeer was granted interim bail on 3 March, with the judge noting that "Shaheen Educational Institution is imparting qualitative education to the students and the institution has earned several awards for its achievements”.
In the event of an arrest, the judge has ordered Qadeer’s release on a personal bond of Rs 200,000.
With inputs from Lakshmi Bavge
(The writers are freelance journalists and members of 101Reporters.com.)
Previously on Article14:
(74 Sedition Charges, But Convictions Unlikely https://t.co/Tk5fbzmv0O?amp=1)