Sedition Charges on Hiren Gohain, Others an Attempt to Gag Voices Against Citizenship Bill

Image Courtesy: The Hindu

Sedition charges have been slapped on prominent academic Dr. Hiren Gohain (80), senior journalist Manjit Mahanta (50) and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) leader Akhil Gogoi (42) for their speeches in a Jana Sabha (public meeting) protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.

Jati, Mati, Bheti (community, land and base)” was the slogan that BJP resorted to in their election campaign in Assam in 2016. Portrayed as the ‘Jatiyo Nayok (national hero)’, the current Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal led the BJP to a clean sweep in the elections for the first time in Assam. But within just two years of coming into power, the BJP government now seems to be crumbling, primarily over growing protests against the Citizenship Bill.

The ruling BJP’s desperation to curb the protesting the voices against the Bill became clear with sedition charges were slapped against the trio alleging they had made secessionist statements in a public meeting on January 7 in Guwahati. The suo motu FIR filed at the Latasil police station, Guwahati, charged the trio under sections 120 (B), 121, 123 and 124 (A) of the IPC.

The news of sedition charge sparked angry reactions from all corners.

AASU (All Assam Students’ Union) advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya stated that the sedition charges were nothing but a desperate attack on the leaders of the movement against Bill. Various other organisations and individuals echoed similar views.

What Actually Happened in the Public Meeting?

After the Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, the Forum against Citizenship Amendment Bill (FACAB), the Left Democratic Mancha (LDM), the Nagarik Samaj and several other organisations jointly called for a ‘Dhikkar Diwas (Condemnation Day)’ to be organised all over Assam with the hoisting of black flags as a protest to the passing of the Bill on January 7. There was a public meeting in Guwahati where Dr. Gohain, Akhil Gogoi and Manjit Mahanta were invited as speakers, along with ex-CMs Tarun Gogoi and Prafulla Mahanta.

The video footage of Gohain’s speech shows him saying, “If no one listens to us, the government, the state and political parties, then it’s a different thing, then we will definitely be compelled to raise the demand for an independent Assam. But let’s not get carried away by temporary emotions, as citizens of India, we will fight democratically as long as we can. If that fight is not successful, then the demand for Independence will come up”.

After the filing of the FIR, Dr. Gohain told the media “I have allegedly made statements amounting to sedition. In truth, some young elements at the rally at their indignation at the attitude of the government mentioned the relevance of ‘freedom’ for Assam. I intervened that such a demand can have relevance if and when all democratic resources have been exhausted and if the state and all democratic parties and organisations reject the legitimate demands of the people of Assam.”

Other speakers who voiced their opposition to the Bill are well known personalities of Assam from different fields, including Harekrishna Deka, ex-DGP of Assam; Haider Hussain, former editor of Asomiya Protidin; Maini Mahanta, author; Arup Borbora, eminent lawyer, to name a few.

Sedition: Attempt to Shield the Failure of the Government?

The Bill has been facing widespread opposition ever since it was introduced. The Joint Parliamentary Committee formed to review the Bill had conducted a public referendum in Assam where people had overwhelmingly given their consent against the Bill. However, despite the protests, the JPC recently gave the green signal to the Bill with minor changes and it was passed in the Lok Sabha. Following this, protests against the Bill as well as the ruling BJP intensified across not just in Assam, but in other North-Eastern states as well.

Commenting on the sedition charges, eminent advocate in Guwahati High Court, Santanu Borthakur, told NewsClick, “There can’t be any case of sedition against Dr. Gohain and the others. There is no base on which the sedition charges could be framed.  The imposition of sections like 121 and 124 A are motivated and directed to attack the leaders and activists of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Bill movements.”

Referring to the famous case of Balwant Singh and Another v State of Punjab (1995) Borthakur said, “The Supreme Court categorically says that mere raising slogans or expressing views cannot lead to sedition. For sedition there has to be substantial evidence of causing violence from someone’s speech or slogans.”

Speaking with NewsClick, Deben Bhattacharya, the state secretary of CPI(M), and the convener of LDM said, “I was also present in the protest and Dr. Gohain didn’t say anything that can lead to sedition. The BJP government has made this attempt to shut the voices of protesting people. But, the movement against the Bill is not going to stop until the Bill is scrapped. We all stand by Gohain and others.”

CPI (ML) central committee member Bibek Das said, “Who should be charged with sedition, one who stands in defence of the Constitution or the one who advocates something that violates the constitutional values? The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is against the secular values of the Constitution and the people advocating for it are the RSS and the BJP. How was such a Bill passed in the Lok Sabha? Should they, who advocated the Bill, not be considered as anti-nationals? Dr. Gohain has stood for democratic struggles all his life and many a times he has opposed secessionist ideas. The people of Assam need the freedom to express their dissent and be heard by the Parliament. The BJP has completely rejected the mandate of the people of Assam.”

First published in Newsclick