Police in India have slapped a Kashmiri man with sedition charges because of posts he made on Facebook calling for India to withdraw from the restive Kashmir region.

Sedition is a colonial-era offense that can carry a life sentence, writes Suhasini Raj for The New York Times. Police in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh have charged Kashmiri engineer Tauseef Ahmad Bhat, 29, as he is accused of “liking, sharing and posting anti-India content on Facebook,” said police superintendent Amresh Mishra.

Indian Police
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Facebook posts land engineer in hot water

The police brought a formal complaint against Bhat, claiming that a post on his Facebook page called for India to get out of Kashmir. The region is still divided between India and Pakistan, but the image showed the flags of Pakistan and China with masked men waving black flags.

The complaint also mentioned another image which showed a caricature of a hand using a broom to shoo away a mouse with the colors of the Indian flag. A caption underneath read “Get out from Kashmir.” Bhat was also accused of posting material that criticized the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

Superintendent Mishra arrested Bhat on Wednesday following the complaint on Tuesday night. The charges were reportedly based on the Facebook posts alone, as Bhat “was not found to be involved in any other activity.”

Right-wing Hindu activists claim they found posts

Mishra said that the posts had been spotted by “certain members of civil society,” who had reported them to the police. “These things are and may be normal in Kashmir, but not in this part of the country,” he said.

Mishra said that Bhat was arrested on a train en route to Jammu, a city in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The train was stopped in a neighboring state and Bhat was brought back to Chhattisgarh.

The arrest came after activists from Bajrang Dal, a right-wing Hindu group, were looking for content harmful to India’s image on social media. According to Ratan Yadav, coordinator of Bajrang Dal in the area, the activists were instrumental in Bhat’s arrest.

“I immediately instructed my local workers, the young lovers of Hinduism, to do one thing: take screenshots,” Mr. Yadav said. “Mr. Bhat has abused the army, the police and India in the posts that he has liked and shared.”

“He has been abusive of the thing” that is most important, Mr. Yadav said, “Bharat Mata, or Mother India.”

British colonial administration introduced sedition law

Superintendent Mishra said that the activists “have a right to protest.” He filed the complaint late Tuesday.

The law against sedition was introduced in India by the British colonial administration. It can be used against any person who “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite dissatisfaction towards, the government established by law.”

The Indian Constitution protects freedom of speech and expression. However there are a number of exceptions, including any speech detrimental to “the sovereignty and integrity of India.” Sedition charges have previously been used for political gain, including in the case of a cartoonist in 2012 and a number of Kashmiri students who cheered the Pakistani cricket team in 2014.

Activists keeping an eye on anti-India sentiment

Hindu activist Yadav claims that Bhat “formed a group of Kashmiris and, while living on Indian soil, he is talking of dividing India.”

“Anti-India activities have gone up on social media of late, and Kashmiris are using it to the hilt to further an anti-India agenda,” he said. “We are keeping watch.”

Yadav revealed that his organization had moved to “save cows from the Muslims and whoever else might be smuggling or slaughtering them” and that it had worked to make sure “the culprits are punished.”

According to Lawrence Liang, a visiting professor of law at Yale, “in comparison to charges of sedition slapped on the basis of social media posts and likes, those for hate speech are more common.”

“Arrests on charges of sedition for social media posts are rare,” he added.

Protests continue to rock Kashmir over the alleged abuses suffered by the population at the hands of Indian security forces. Activists have released social media campaigns to raise awareness of the use of pellet guns, which have left many Kashmiris injured, and the impunity in which Indian forces are allegedly allowed to operate.

The situation shows no signs of improvement and these sedition charges mark an interesting development in attempts to control dissent. It seems unlikely that this will be the last that we hear of the issue.