Concerns remain after court freezes India’s colonial sedition law

By David Asta Alares

New Delhi, May 30 (EFE).- Human rights defenders have welcomed the suspension of a 19th-century draconian sedition law by India’s top court.

But those denouncing the government’s extensive arsenal to silence critical voices remain skeptical, flagging concerns that do not go away by merely freezing the law.

On May 11, the Supreme Court suspended the anti-sedition law that dates back to the British colonial era and asked the government to review it.

Amnesty International (AI), an organization that faced sedition charges in 2016 and whose case was not closed until three years later, called the court’s decision a welcome step.

“For far too long, authorities have misused the sedition law to harass, intimidate, and persecute human rights defenders,” the chair of Amnesty International India board, Aakar Patel, said in a statement.

He said the “sedition has been used as a tool of political repression by successive governments” against activists, journalists, students, filmmakers, singers, actors, and writers for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.

Although its use to silence voices critical of the authorities is not limited to the current government of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the organization criticizes the growing zeal with which the law has been used.

Some 326 cases were registered under the sedition law from 2014 to 2019, with only six convictions.

The suspension is limited to asking the government not to register more sedition cases, a step in the right direction, said Amnesty.

However, those directly affected are less optimistic.

Student and activist Natasha Narwal spent over a year in prison for participating in protests in New Delhi in 2020 against a controversial new citizenship law that its critics say is anti-Muslim.

The protests led to clashes between Hindus and Muslims and left 50 people dead and 200 injured.

Sedition is just one of the charges against Narwal, who, along with other activists, was accused of instigating the violence.

She was charged under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

“The judiciary has given the ball back to the government, accused of using the law against critical voices. So that does not sound very optimistic to me,” Narwal told EFE.

She said the authorities multiplied the charges under the harshest laws, including the UAPA or the National Security Act, making bail difficult.

“You can apply for bail but the conditions are so stringent that it is almost impossible to get it before at least four or five years,” said Narwal.

Activist Disha Ravi, a member of the Indian chapter of the “Fridays for Future” environmental movement started by Swedish Greta Thunberg, was arrested last year on sedition charges over an online document backing protesting farmers.

Ravi was granted bail by a court, “considering the scanty and sketchy evidence available on record.”

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