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India puts hold on harsh sedition law

NEW DELHI (AP) – India’s top court put the country’s colonial-era sedition law on hold yesterday.

Critics said the government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi was increasingly using it to silence criticism and dissent.

The Supreme Court order asked the Indian government and state authorities to refrain from registering fresh cases under the harsh law while it was under review and allowed accused people detained under it to seek bail from courts.

“It will be appropriate not to use this provision of law till further reexamination is over,” the three-judge bench headed by India’s Chief Justice NV Ramana said in New Delhi. The order also put on hold all pending cases, appeals and proceedings with respect to charges framed under the 152-year-old law.

India’s sedition law, like its equivalent in other formerly British-ruled countries, offers a legal framework to categorise a citizen as a threat to the state.

A woman holds a placard protesting against the sedition case filed by police against a school. PHOTO: AP

Globally, it is increasingly viewed as a draconian law and was revoked in the United Kingdom in 2010.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, criticising a yoga guru, cheering a rival cricket team, drawing political cartoons, and not standing up in a movie theatre for the national anthem, which is often played before films.

But under Modi, critics said India is growing notoriously intolerant, its crackdown on critics unprecedented in scale.

Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party 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.

Senior counsel Kapil Sibal told the court that at least 13,000 people were in jail under the law.