In May 2019, the Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party, popularly known as YSR Congress, won 151 of 175 seats in the Andhra Pradesh legislative assembly, a landslide victory that paved the way for YS Jagan Mohan Reddy to become chief minister.
Five months later, government ordinance number 2430 was issued by the Andhra Pradesh government empowering all department secretaries to lodge complaints and file appropriate legal cases through the office of the public prosecutor against “false, baseless and defamatory news items”.
The ordinance notes that this had been done in the backdrop of “instances…that certain print, electronic and social media are deliberately trying to tarnish the image of the government”.
Two years later, in 2021, the National Crime Records Bureau reported that Andhra Pradesh topped the list of states with the highest number of sedition cases. Of the 76 sedition cases filed across the country that year, Andhra Pradesh accounted for 29.
What also makes this number stark is the fact that between 2014, when the National Crime Records Bureau first started recording sedition data, and 2020, the state reported only three sedition cases. In fact, zero cases recorded in 2019 and 2020.
On May 11, the Supreme Court put the sedition law on hold, ruling that no fresh cases should be filed under it. Yet, this massive jump in sedition cases from zero to 29 in a single year begs the question: what triggered the government in Andhra Pradesh to file these cases against a reported 67 individuals?
Here, the National Crime Records Bureau is most unhelpful, observing that it does not record socio-economic causes or reasons of crimes, a qualitative factor that is essential in understanding how laws such as sedition are used by governments.
In the absence of any reasons recorded by the Bureau, two sedition cases in 2021 offer some political context to the data: First Information Report number 12, filed against Lok Sabha Member of Parliament K Ramakrishna Raju, and news channels TV 5 and ABN Andhra Jyoti, and FIR 83 against a suspended magistrate S Rama Krishna.
In both cases the accused had criticised the chief minister, and in the case of the MP, these remarks were widely disseminated in the media.
Is Reddy taking a leaf out of the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath’s playbook on quelling critics by using the sedition law? After all, Reddy, in his speech after being sworn in, singled out the media, particularly the television channel Andhra Jyoti, that were critical of his party and had warned that cases would be filed against them.
This kind of warning-through-speech, by a chief minister, is a tactic used by Adityanath as well after he came to power in Uttar Pradesh in 2017. The Uttar Pradesh police has been empowered to use the language of defamation, conspiracy, and “tarnishing the image of the government”, most notably in the aftermath of the Hathras gangrape and protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in late 2019 and early 2020, and even an India-Pakistan cricket match.
A similar pattern emerges in Andhra Pradesh, one that appears to have its roots in Reddy’s speeches, including referring to his Opposition as “anti-social elements”. Therefore, the FIRs number 12 and 83, should come as no surprise given the political antagonism towards criticism in Andhra Pradesh.
One might ask why the 2021 data on sedition matters if the numbers are “small”. After all, 29 cases of sedition in one state with a population of 52 million need not be a cause for concern. However, empirical evidence on offences against the state, of which sedition is one, offer deep insights into the merging of law with realpolitik.
For instance, it is clear that the executive machinery is emboldened when elected leaders of a state issue threats and warnings against critics or anyone perceived to be an “enemy”. Against this background, is it reasonable to expect that a police officer in that state would consider that criticism is not sedition, even though it is explicitly mentioned in the language of the law?
Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code pertaining to sedition states that “disapprobation”, or disapproval, of the government’s actions without inciting hatred, contempt or disaffection do not constitute an offence.
The nuanced interpretation of sedition is then left to the judiciary, at the time of trial. It is increasingly impossible to insulate the use of laws such as sedition, from shrill political rhetoric. An acknowledgement of these factors, might also pave the way for more grounded judicial discourse, given that the constitutionality of sedition is currently pending before the Supreme Court.
Lubhyathi Rangarajan is an independent lawyer and Editor-Databases at Article 14, a digital media company. She led and conceptualised the sedition database that was launched in January 2021, here.