During Trump-Modi meeting, the White House should press India to repeal colonial-era sedition law, which is used today to crack down on government critics and human rights defenders.
By Joanne Lin, Senior Managing Director, Advocacy and Government Affairs, Amnesty International USA
On Monday, June 26 President Trump will welcome India Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House. The state visit comes at a time when freedoms long cherished in India have come increasingly under attack. India is long overdue to repeal the sedition law, a colonial-era relic used by the British to jail Mahatma Gandhi, who called it “the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.”
Amnesty International India has documented the government’s abuse of the sedition law, which carries a potential life imprisonment sentence. The most recent sedition charges were filed just days ago after police arrested and detained 19 people, including minors, after the June 19 International Cricket Council Champions Trophy final between India and Pakistan. The police later dropped the sedition charges, but, as of June 23, are still jailing them for promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and race.
Amnesty International India is calling for their immediate unconditional release. As Asmita Basu, Program Director of Amnesty International India, explained, “Even if the arrested men had supported Pakistan, as the police claim, that is not a crime. Supporting a sporting team is a matter of individual choice, and arresting someone for cheering a rival team clearly violates their right to freedom of expression… These cases show just why the sedition law should be immediately repealed. This law is excessively broad and vague and makes it easy to silence people who are legitimately exercising their right to freedom of expression… The sedition law has no place in a rights-respecting society, let alone one that has a proud tradition of pluralism and debate.”
The June 2017 sedition charges filed against the cricket fans are not an isolated incident. 30 sedition cases were registered in 2015 alone, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau. Many of these cases did not involve any violence or incitement to violence, and the government managed to achieve only one conviction. Other recent sedition cases include:
· 2016: Amnesty International India was charged with sedition, after organizing a seminar on human rights abuses in Kashmir. Amnesty International India dismissed these baseless allegations, but temporarily closed its offices and postponed human rights awareness events due to safety concerns for its staff.
· 2014: Uttar Pradesh police charged 60 Kashmiri students with sedition, after an India-Pakistan cricket match.
· 2014: Kerala authorities charged seven people, including students, with sedition after they had allegedly refused to stand up during the national anthem in a cinema.
There is no valid reason for India’s sedition law to remain on the books. This outdated law was used to curb free speech during the independence struggle against the British, and today is being used to silence and harass journalists, activists, human rights defenders, and people expressing dissenting views. The sedition law violates the right to freedom of expression under the Indian constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a state party.
This week, as Prime Minister Modi and President Trump meet to discuss the future of India-U.S. relations, it is essential that the White House press India to repeal the sedition law. Prime Minister Modi should scrap this colonial-era law and live up to India’s proud tradition of pluralism, tolerance, and peaceful dissent.