Ongoing agitation in Kudankulam illustrates how State criminalises popular protest

To what extent will the State go to criminalise an agitation, especially a prolonged popular struggle against a project seen by the government as a vital necessity, but as a hazard by the people living in its vicinity? It will charge the protesters with grave offences such as “waging war” and “sedition” regardless of whether there is any basis.

The ongoing agitation against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) is a case in point. A dozen cases, involving a large number of unnamed people and a few named suspects, invoke these charges, among other penal provisions attracting stringent punishment.

Only some of those involved have been arrested in connection with incidents arising out of the protest. And none of the principal leaders of the agitation who have been booked for sedition and waging war has been arrested so far, but the question that arises is whether there was any need to invoke provisions such as Section 124A of IPC (Sedition) and Section 121 (waging war against the Government of India) in the context of these protests.

The People’s Union of Civil Liberties, in a submission to a public hearing on Kudankulam in May had noted that while appearing to be restrained, the police had been quietly registering scores of cases since last year.

If cartoonist Aseem Trivedi’s arbitrary arrest under sedition charges evoked condemnation from the Mumbai High Court, the media and civil society, lawyers and activists raise the question: who will prevent the arbitrary use of similar charges against fishermen and villagers participating in a political protest?

Since the agitation against KKNPP began in August 2011, the police have filed 271 cases including 12 that speak of sedition and waging war against the government. In the latter category of cases, five persons — anti-KKNPP struggle committee convener S.P. Udayakumar, his close associates M. Pushparayan, Fr. M.P. Jesuraj, Fr. Jayakumar and Milton — and 40 others have been cited as accused.

How do the police justify their action?

“As they (the protesters) threatened to destroy the KKNPP reactors if the nuclear power programme was not shelved and incited passion among the public to revolt against the State and the Central governments, we had to slap charges of sedition, waging war against the State etc, on them. Moreover, they also circulated pamphlets containing these messages among the public and their addresses in the meetings too had this threat. We have got ample evidence to prove our case against them and will produce it in the court,” said Deputy Inspector General of Police, Tirunelveli Range, V. Varadaraju.

Moreover, they also spoke in support of secession and against the Inter-governmental Agreement signed between Indian and Russian governments on establishing KKNPP, he said.

Many lawyers say sedition is too serious a charge to be slapped on people fighting for democratic rights.

The provision, they point out, is a vestige of the colonial era, and has no place in a democratic society.

“There is absolutely no necessity to invoke 124A in any case. It is a total abuse of the law and an attempt to muzzle and crush the dissent of people who questioned the State and its policies,” says V. Suresh, national general secretary of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL).

According to him, such provisions were being deliberately invoked to preclude the courts from granting bail.

“At the national level, the conviction rate in sedition cases is less than five per cent, but the accused and their families undergo tremendous torture, financial distress and emotional trauma during the trial that takes years to conclude,” Dr. Suresh adds.

N. Chandrasekharan, Special Public Prosecutor for CBI cases in the Madras High Court, who spoke on the offence of sedition without going into the merits of existing cases, said Section 124A should be scrapped, as the provision was being invoked without any deep examination.

There were several other provisions in the IPC and other laws to take care of law and order situations.

“Law enforcers need to remember that there should be intention to instigate the people to rise against the government established by law, and this ingredient is necessary to invoke the provision. Even then it should be used sparingly.”

T. Lajapathi Roy, who practises in the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court, said that usually, the police pressed charges like sedition because the provision was still available in the statute books. “They think that every dissent against the government is antinational.”

(with inputs from P. Sudhakar, K.T. Sangameswaran, S. Vijay Kumar and Mohammed Imranullah S.)

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