A protest in June demanded the release of Dalit youth leader Chandrashekhar Azad Ravanand, jailed without bail under India's National Security Act. Photo: The Times of India/Rajesh Mehta

The continued incarceration of Dalit youth leader Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan in an Uttar Pradesh jail is symptomatic of alarming human rights violations by the state in India, made worse by a steady emasculation of the constitutional institutions meant to protect civil rights.

Ravan, the founder of a Dalit organization, Bhim Army, is accused of inciting violence in the aftermath of tension between upper caste (Rajputs) and lower caste (Dalits) resulting in many casualties and the burning of several Dalit houses in May this year. He was arrested in Himachal Pradesh in Junewas denied bail by a lower court and sent to jail.

After 146 days, the High Court granted him bail suggesting that it was a political and therefore illegal detention. However, within 24 hours, the government booked Ravan under the National Security Act (NSA) and sent him back to jail. It will take Ravan at least six months before he gets to court in a bid for freedom.

The NSA was enacted in 1980 after the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) expired in 1977. MISA was used to jail some of the members of the current parliament and government during the 1975 emergency.

Protest in 1919 brought sweeping crackdown

The law’s roots go back to the Rowlatt Acts that led to the JallianwalaBagh protest and massacre in 1919. Currently, it allows the state to detain a person on the ground that it is necessary for national security and “maintenance of public order.”

Besides the NSA, the law of sedition is arbitrarily used against activists across the country. For example, Akhil  Gogoi, a farmer’s leader and social activist was arrested in Assam for sedition and sent to jail in September this year.

In Tamil Nadu, T. Jayaraman, an environmental campaigner, was booked in October for sedition for publishing a book criticizing the government of India’s project interlinking the major rivers of the country that he termed “snatching and selling river.”

And Gujarat police arrested Tushar Bhatacharya from Maharashtra where he has been living for the last three years after serving six years under the Unlawful Activities Prohibition Act (UAPA) for which he was later acquitted. After his arrest, Gujarat police described him as an absconder in a 2010 case which, say police, now merits a sedition charge.

Sedition conviction could mean life in prison

Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code, makes creating disaffection “by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise,” towards “the government established by law in India” an act of sedition punishable with life imprisonment.

The law was introduced in 1870 to suppress the demand of rights and freedom in the aftermath of the 1857 Indian Rebellion (some historians call it the First War of Independence) and later, in 1922, Mahatma Gandhi was jailed for six years for sedition.

The sedition law, besides being a diabolically vague statute that puts espionage against the state and political cartooning on the same pedestal, is incompatible with democracy.

The sedition law, besides being a diabolically vague statute that puts espionage against the state and political cartooning on the same pedestal, is incompatible with democracy. Its continuation means the right to criticize the elected government does not exist, and if exercised would invite punishment.

Civil liberty organizations have appealed to the Indian parliament to repeal a law that flies in the face of representative democracy, legal justice, and human rights.

One glaring victim of human rights violation by the state is G.N. Saibaba, a severely disabled former teacher of Delhi University who is dying while he awaits a bail hearing, pending his appeal in Supreme Court against conviction for sedition and other charges.

Ideally, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) should have intervened on behalf of a “political prisoner” who is merely asking for an early hearing in a court of law. The chairman of the NHRC — the former chief justice of the Supreme Court — knows why and against whom anti-terror and sedition cases are filed and the consequences.

Out of a total of 77,500 persons arrested under Terrorist and Disruptive Detention Act (TADA), only 8,000 were tried; 725 (0.81 per cent) were convicted and some of them are still believed to be in jail, though the act expired in 1995.

According to a National Crime Research Bureau (NCRB) 2016 report, out of 112 sedition cases laid in last three years, only two have led to conviction. There is no data as to how many prisoners are awaiting trial for sedition across the country because the NCRB only began compiling data on section 124 A after 2014. Even then, many states reported zero cases during three years when apparently there were people booked under the law. One example is Tamil Nadu where the government booked  8,856 people for sedition in one mass-protest incident, but reported zero cases to the national database.

These people remain in jail for years. The NCRB report documents that 67.2% of the total prison population — 419,623 —  are awaiting trial. Moreover, at the end of 2015, there were 3,599 accused who were waiting in jail for more than five years without a court appearance.

Judiciary unable to provide legal justice

The judiciary is severely handicapped and is unable to provide bare legal justice. To expect the protection of rights and liberties from the judiciary is like asking an overworked and unmotivated doctor to perform brain surgery in a stable.

According to the ministry of law and justice, 26.4 million cases were pending in the country at the end of 2014. Out of these, 2.04 million were pending for more than 10 years. Furthermore, 4.15 million cases were pending before 24 high courts of the country with 777,630 cases remaining pending for more than 10 years.

The Indian criminal justice system is badly damaged, defying piecemeal solutions promised by politicians. Only a prime minister with the will and the vision can fix it. The question is: will Narendra Modi be that prime minister, or will the country have to wait until Rahul Gandhi takes over his job?

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Pushkar Raj

Pushkar Raj is a researcher and author based in Melbourne. Formerly he taught political science in Delhi University and was the national general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).

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