NEW DELHI – Sharjeel Imam was a little-known research scholar and a student activist until Indian police launched a manhunt across five states to nab him for a protest speech he gave calling for a month-long road blockade in the county's northeast.
“Create debris on the railway tracks and roads,” Imam told the crowd, exhorting them to cut off the northeastern state of Assam from the rest of the country.
Massive protests had broken out in Assam and elsewhere in India in December after a law was passed that fast-tracks naturalization for some religious minorities who immigrated illegally from some neighboring countries but excludes Muslims.
In the wake of his speech, some leaders of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party labeled Imam a “secessionist." A lawmaker from Modi's party said that people like him “should be shot dead publicly.”
In January, the 31-year-old was arrested and charged as an enemy of India under a British colonial-era sedition law. Modi's government has increasingly brandished the law to silence critics, intellectuals, human rights activists, filmmakers, students and journalists, with police arguing that words or actions of dissent make them a threat to national security.
Official data reveal as many as 332 people were arrested under the sedition law between 2016 and 2018, though only seven were convicted, suggesting that police have struggled to gather evidence against the accused.
Nevertheless, India's notoriously slow criminal justice system ensures that the movement and speech of the accused are severely hamstrung as long as cases remain pending. While charged, people can't obtain passports or government jobs, and must show up to court as required.
“The real punishment is in the trial where a person has to spend days, sometimes even months, to try and prove innocence,” said Chitranshul Sinha, an Indian lawyer who has written a book on the history of the sedition law.
“This is enough to harass or silence people,” he said, calling it an “oppressive, black law.”
In the case of Imam, India’s burgeoning pro-government news channels were quick to paint him as a raging Islamist who was out to destroy the country.
“The law is used to label dissenting citizens as disloyal toward their country through media trials instead of legal processes,” said Ayesha Pattnaik, a researcher who has analyzed India's sedition law, brought in and used by the British to repress India’s freedom fighters before its independence in 1947.
The government only began collecting data on the number of sedition cases in 2015, but researchers and other experts say there has been an increase in its use under the Modi government.
Last month when Modi's law minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, was asked if India was becoming less tolerant of the free expression of dissent, he told reporters that use of the sedition law to silence dissent would be an “abuse of power.”
Prasad said people have the right to criticize Modi, his party and the government but the law was needed because there were “forces in the country out to weaken India.”
Government spokesman Kuldeep Dhatwalia declined to comment on accusations that the law is being used to target critics.
India's sedition law, like its equivalent in other former British-ruled countries, offers a legal framework to categorize a citizen as a threat to the state. Globally, it is increasingly viewed as a draconian law and was revoked in the United Kingdom in 2010.
Its use to silence critics in India isn’t new.
During previous governments, people were charged with sedition for liking a Facebook post critical of the administration, criticizing a yoga guru, cheering a rival cricket team, drawing political cartoons, and not standing up in a movie theater for the national anthem, which is often played before films.
But under Modi, critics say, India is growing notoriously intolerant, its crackdown on critics unprecedented in scale.
Last year, Indian police filed a case of sedition against 49 people, including well-known movie stars, for writing an open letter to Modi expressing concerns over hate crimes targeting minority communities. After pubic outcry, the charges were dropped.
More recently, police investigated those involved in a school play that voiced opposition to the citizenship law and arrested a primary school teacher and the mother of a student for sedition. The students, aged 9 and 10, were interrogated by police over several days for participating in the play. The charges were later dropped.
Leaders of Modi’s party routinely label critics as “anti-national.” The government has rejected demands from civil society and opposition to repeal the law, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Last summer, New Delhi police filed a sedition case against political activist Shehla Rashid for tweets that alleged the Indian army tortured people in disputed Kashmir days after India revoked the region’s semi-autonomy and put the Muslim-majority region under lockdown.
Shehla alleged that Indian soldiers tortured four Kashmiri men while placing a microphone next to them “so that the entire area could hear them scream, and be terrorized.”
The Indian army refuted the allegations. A criminal complaint followed seeking Shehla's arrest on the grounds that she had spread fake information against the government and the army.
Shehla said the allegations of torture were proved true after reports of army abuse were published in the independent media, including The Associated Press.
Still, for months, she has been legally tackling the case that left her with “considerable financial implications” and had, what she calls, “chilling effects on her freedom of speech."
“The cost of speaking up in this country is a lot,” said Shehla. “You are effectively criminalized the moment you speak up against the government."