The India Cable: Sedition: Justice Delayed, Not Altogether Denied; Sarma Assures Police Protection For ‘Extreme Action’

Plus: Delhi photojournalist Danish Siddiqui killed in Afghanistan, 2 million Indian WhatsApp accounts banned, Karnataka HC rules, no illegitimate children, and what Stan Swamy’s judicial killing means

A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day

July 16, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

This morning, Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui of Delhi was killed in a Taliban crossfire in Kandahar, during a clash with Afghan government commandos near a border crossing with Pakistan. Earlier in the day, he had suffered a shrapnel injury. Siddiqui was part of the team that won a Pulitzer for Feature Photography in 2018, for coverage of the Rohingya crisis. He also worked in Nepal, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong, apart from his base in India. “Danish was an outstanding journalist, a devoted husband and father, and a much-loved colleague,” Reuters President Michael Friedenberg and Editor-in-Chief Alessandra Galloni said. 

The EU Medicines Agency has dropped a bombshell in a press conference: Serum Institute of India chief Adar Poonawala’s protestations notwithstanding, for the Covishield vaccine to be evaluated for use in the EU, the developer needs “to submit a formal marketing authorisation application to EMA, which to date has not been received.

India is welcome to continue its aid and reconstruction work in Afghanistan under a Taliban government. But New Delhi should remain neutral and not give the current Kabul administration any military support, says Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s Political Office Spokesman for International Media from Qatar, in an interview to Mint. He said that the Taliban would not threaten any diplomatic missions. India pulled out its diplomats and security personnel from the consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif last week.

The Archaeological Survey of India has removed plaques in Rajsamand district’s Rakta Talai, which said that Rajput forces had to retreat during Maharana Pratap’s battle with Akbar in 1576. Rajputs and their organisations were “offended” by the plaques, and politicians like Rajsamand BJP MP had also raised the issue. Union Minister of State for Culture Arjun Ram Meghwal had ordered their removal two days earlier.

Significantly, the Karnataka High Court has held that there may be illegitimate parents, but no illegitimate children, because a child plays no role in his or her birth. It made the observation while setting aside a single judge order quashing a petition by K Santosha, seeking a job in the state-run Bangalore Electricity Supply Company on compassionate grounds, following the death of his father. However, the petitioner was born of a second marriage when the first marriage was in subsistence, and his application was rejected by the company.

Yesterday, while the Chief Justice of India was asking why the old “colonial” law of sedition needs to stay on the statute books, police in Haryana’s Sirsa arrested five people in connection with the farmers’ protests. They had earlier booked over 100, most of them unidentified, with charges including sedition.

Since Himanta Biswa Sarma took charge of Assam on May 10, at least 23 people have been shot at while in police custody, and five of them were killed. It’s a familiar ploy that dates back to the Naxalite movement in West Bengal ― people in custody apparently try to flee or snatch weapons, and are shot. In response to Opposition criticism, Sarma committed himself to “zero tolerance”: “My clear instruction [to police] is, do not break the law, but within the law… you take extreme action, and the Assam government is going to protect you.” It may be noted that the Prime Minister yesterday gave UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath a glowing annual appraisal, and spoke of his success in combating crime ― through encounter raj. 

India’s campaign to vaccinate all adults “has faced a number of challenges, including vaccine shortages and logistical hurdles,” reports the South China Morning Post. “The drive is also digital-only and citizens have to register on the government’s online portal CoWin and then receive a code via mobile phone. This is impossible for many in a country where internet penetration is only 45%, meaning there are about 624 million internet users among a population of 1.39 billion, according to DataReportal. Roughly 550 million still use feature phones which cannot access the CoWin portal. This digital divide is even starker in places like slums, where most people do not own mobile phones.”

A Zee News report focuses on the students of Limber Boniyar village in Jammu and Kashmir’s Baramulla, who climb hills, despite the fear of animal attacks, just to catch a mobile signal.

Economic distress is pervasive: 79% believe incomes will decline this year, 49% believe they will save less this year and 47% are uncertain about how they will manage expenditure over the next 6-12 months, finds The Economic Times.

The Supreme Court heard the suo motu case regarding the UP government’s decision to allow the annual Kanwar Yatra amid the pandemic, and sought a review by Monday. The Centre wants gangajal in tankers to be made available for pilgrims. Justice Rohinton Nariman praised Uttarakhand for calling off the Yatra and said: “We are of prima facie view that it concerns all of us and is at the heart of the fundamental right to life. The health of citizenry of India and right to life is paramount, all other sentiments, whether religious, are subservient to this basic fundamental right.” 

Newsclick has a list of all 119 Indian athletes, 67 male and 52 female, who have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. 

TN BJP chief to bring media to heel in 6 months

K Annamalai, the new president of the Tamil Nadu BJP, has said that the media in the state would be “brought under control within six months”, because his predecessor L Murugan is now Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting in Delhi. Annamalai issued this threat while addressing party workers at Namakkal, and the video went viral. The Modi government’s relations with the media have been under a cloud, and have brought down India’s rating in global indices like the World Press Freedom Index, where it has plummeted to 142 of 180 countries, and other democracy indices

Farmers issue ‘people’s whip’

Just before the Monsoon Session of Parliament, farmers’ union Samyukt Kisan Morcha has asked MPs to raise demands of agitating farmers, or face resistance. The “people’s whip”  calls for a new law to guarantee Minimum Support Price for all crops across the country.

Economy grows, only because baseline is low

A report by rating agency ICRA says, “The real GDP in Q1FY22 will trail the Q1FY20 level, while recording a double-digit y-o-y expansion.” The nationwide lockdown had resulted in a 23.7% contraction of GDP in the June quarter of FY20. Despite a very low base this year, the performance of most high-frequency indicators in June 2021 remained below the pre-Covid levels of June 2019, and of the period before the peak of the second wave in April 2021. 

Imports in June rose by 98.31% to $41.87 billion, driven by a rise in oil and gold imports, leaving a trade deficit of $9.37 billion as against a trade surplus of $0.79 billion in the same month last year. Merchandise exports rose by 48.34% to $32.5 billion in June, according to the Commerce Ministry. Oil imports in June were $10.68 billion, 116.51% higher than $4.93 billion in June last year.

The Long Cable

Justice delayed, but not justice denied

Colin Gonsalves

The almost simultaneous entertainment by three benches of the Supreme Court of petitions seeking declarations that Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code is unconstitutional, indicates that the apex court finally realises that sedition is a draconian provision and needs to be done away with. It is welcome because if the petitions succeed, a colonial provision designed to crush nonviolent social movements against the British Crown, which is now being used to suppress democratic dissent in an independent country, will go, making prosecutions for free speech difficult. Thousands, including the CAA protestors and the tribal supporters of the Patthalgadi movement, journalists, artists, farmers, trade unionists, students and others will have the yoke of this oppressive provision lifted.

The Kedar Nath vs State of Bihar decision was delivered in 1962 and was an excellent pronouncement, except for one fatal defect. This decision held that the judgments of the Privy Council concluded that mere words were enough to convict under the section and that violence was not an essential ingredient of the offence of sedition. It read into the section the requirement of large scale breaches of law and order following the offending words. Thus, the Supreme Court was right in its analysis but wrong in the medicine it prescribed. In not declaring the section unconstitutional and not striking it down altogether, thus removing it from the statute books, the Supreme Court made a fatal mistake. One must understand this through the eyes of a policeman at a police station. His bible is the latest edition of the Indian Penal Code. When he opens it to 124A, 60 years after Kedar Nath, he finds the section staring at him with all its venom: “Whoever by words, signs, visible representation brings into hatred or contempt or excites disaffection against the government shall be punished with imprisonment for life”. Had Kedar Nath struck down the provision, it would have disappeared from the Code. By reading into the section an additional requirement, it was almost like Parliament expecting every policeman in the country to read and understand Kedar Nath and interpret the section accordingly. This elementary mistake resulted in hundreds of prosecutions being instituted every year against people guilty of no offence except nonviolent protests against the tyranny of the Union.

This point was pressed home by the Supreme Court in two cases. In Balwant Singh’s case, a pro-Khalistan agitator passionately called upon Sikhs to struggle by use of arms to carve out a separate state in India. No violence followed and he was acquitted for his mere words. In Bilal Ahmed Kaloo’s case a similar call for azadi by use of arms without any violence ensuing resulted in acquittal. The Supreme Court emphasised that large scale violence was a necessary ingredient of sedition. This had no effect on prosecutions by the police for mere free speech. Kishore Chandra, the journalist from Manipur who used an expletive against the chief minister, spent a year in jail before he was released on bail.

The Union was proud to retain this weapon of the war against the people and refused to repeal the section, even though the UK government, from whom we inherited this law and many other countries, repealed its sedition law decades ago. I am absolutely certain that the law officers of the Union will, when these matters are taken up for hearing in the Supreme Court, put up a strenuous defence.

In 1922 when Mahatma Gandhi was charged under the section, he remarked, “Section 124A under which I am happily charged is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of citizens.”

Let us hope that the Supreme Court will now take up with alacrity the other provisions of law such as criminal defamation and the infamous Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which deserve to be put in the dustbin of history. Before that is done, however, judges have to introspect on the tolerance of tyranny, which is so prevalent in our country.

Colin Gonsalves is senior advocate, Supreme Court of India, and founder of the Human Rights Law Network


While VK Sasikala’s attempt to emerge out of Jayalalithaa’s shadow was abruptly cut short by the Supreme Court, which upheld a Bengaluru trial court order sentencing her to four years in a disproportionate assets case, her second shot at taking control of the AIADMK is now being challenged by Edappadi K Palaniswami, a trusted lieutenant once handpicked by her to keep the chief minister’s chair warm while she served her jail term. Sasikala’s chief challenger is no longer O Panneerselvam, who rebelled against her after Jayalalithaa’s death. 

Sasikala’s political stock was brought low by EPS, who not only controlled the government and the party, but also ensured that she was not taken back into the AIADMK before state elections in April. Though the AIADMK is still smarting from the election defeat, EPS has managed to stonewall Sasikala’s efforts to make a comeback. He controls the party and has shouldered aside OPS, technically his boss. But his problems aren’t over yet – a slew of corruption charges during his tenure still hang around his neck, and the DMK government may give new life to them anytime.

Two million WhatsApp accounts banned

WhatsApp banned 2 million Indian accounts while it received 345 grievance reports in May 15-June 15, the company said in its first monthly compliance report, as mandated by the IT rules. It clarified that more than 95% of bans are due to spam. 

Pant tests positive, series under cloud

Former England captain Michael Vaughan has raised concerns about the forthcoming five-Test cricket series between India and England, saying Covid-19 isolation rules need to be changed. Indian wicket-keeper and batsman Rishabh Pant has tested positive and has been in isolation for eight days. 

Four more members of the Indian contingent have been forced to quarantine for 10 days in London. Assistant/net bowler Dayanand Garani tested positive on July 14. Bowling coach B Arun, wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha and reserve opener Abhimanyu Easwaran, his close contacts, are also quarantined.

Prime number: Greater than 2 million
A projection of the number of Covid-19 dead so far ― Chinmay Tumbe’s analysis in a Twitter thread.

Deep dive

For the first time, research has established the long-term impact of the midday meal scheme, across generations. Girls who eat a school meal every day are less likely to have stunted children. Researchers looked at the impact of India’s midday meal programme – the world’s largest free school meal scheme.

Running India’s power grid

The task of running one of the world’s largest nationwide power grids is a unique challenge. Mint tells us how it is done.

Johnson vs Starmer, over Modi’s handshake photo

During a heated debate on racism at the British Prime Minister’s questions session on Wednesday, Boris Johnson held up a leaflet showing him shaking hands with PM Narendra Modi at the G7 Summit in 2019 with the message, “Don’t risk a Tory MP who is not on your side”. Used in a by-election in the north, it is seen as “divisive” and “anti-India” by the diaspora, and Boris wanted it withdrawn. However, Labour leader Sir Keith Starmer continued to attack the ruling Conservative Party for not fighting back against racist abuse faced by England’s footballers on the pitch.

Opeds you don’t want to miss

  • Editorials today laud the tough observations of the Chief Justice of India about the colonial sedition law. The Times of India: “Good judicial moment: Courts at all levels are pushing back against bad laws. SC should go a step ahead, repeal laws like sedition.” The Hindustan Times’ editorial: “CJI Ramana stands for liberty”. 

  • Racism on social media in England after the Euro final was condemned by their PM, who reassured minorities. In India, much more poisonous hatred on social media is directed at Muslim stars, but nobody in power condemns it or reassures the community, writes Vir Sanghvi.

  • In a signed editorial for EPW, Gopal Guru writes that ideally, the objective of reservation “is to achieve in the consciousness of voters a progressive shift that would articulate political reservation as an initial step to achieve the ideal of democracy.”

  • Rather than ensuring reproductive rights for citizens, Uttar Pradesh’s new population policy violates them, says Shireen Jejeebhoy.

  • In Birdlife, Jessica Law writes that the Great Indian Bustard is most endangered by power lines. But there is hope, since the Supreme Court ruled in April that all power lines at its breeding areas should be run underground. It could be a lifeline for many bird species.

Listen up

In ‘Marine Life’, Raghu Karnad says that Mumbai treats the sea like scenery, a backdrop, not like a living world full of creatures that are our neighbours. He and marine wildlife photographer and director of the Coastal Conservation Fund Shaunak Modi talk about diversity in Mumbai’s shoreline and why we should stop treating the sea as a view, and start treating it as a world.

Watch Out

Should Father Stan Swamy have died like this? Why did it happen? Who is responsible for it? Was the Indian state threatened by Stan Swamy? Why so? Is our republic safer after his death? Parkala Prabhakar answers the questions he raises.

Over and out

Veteran actor Surekha Sikri (75) died this morning in Mumbai. See this compilation by Scoopwhoop made some years ago, that showcases her talent. She made her debut in the political satire Kissa Kursi Ka in 1978.

That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Monday, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.