Delhi lieutenant governor V.K. Saxena has granted sanction to prosecute author Arundhati Roy and academic Sheikh Showkat Hussain under the anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, for speeches made at a seminar here in 2010, sources said on Tuesday.
The development comes within days of the arrest of the editor-in-chief and the HR head of the news website NewsClick under the same law. Roy, a vocal critic of the Narendra Modi government, was at the forefront of the protest at the Press Club of India last week against the “chilling” invocation of the UAPA against journalists.
Last month, in her acceptance speech after receiving the 2023 European Essay Award, Roy had spoken of India’s “descent into first majoritarianism and then full-blown fascism”. She spoke of the violence in Manipur, the troubles in Kashmir, the Gujarat riots, Adani, the Hindenburg report, economic inequality, lynchings and the Prime Minister’s silence.
The FIR on which the lieutenant governor has granted sanction was filed in November 2010 on the orders of a magistrate following a complaint by Sushil Pandit, a Kashmiri Pandit activist who was described at the time as a BJP supporter. The BJP had disrupted the seminar.
Pandit had alleged that Roy, Hussain and others had at the seminar in Delhi discussed and propagated the “separation of Kashmir from India” and jeopardised public peace and security.
Then home minister P. Chidambaram had defended the police initially not filing an FIR, saying: “The state must show tolerance and forbearance.”
The Delhi governments under Sheila Dikshit of the Congress and Arvind Kejriwal of the AAP had not acted on the police’s subsequent request for sanction.
Chidambaram tweeted on Tuesday: “There was no justification then to register a case against her on the charge of sedition.... There is no justification now to sanction prosecution against her.”
He added: “A speech that does not directly incite violence will not amount to sedition. When speeches are made, however much others may disagree, the State must show tolerance and forbearance.... I stand by free speech and against the colonial law of sedition.”
The Congress leader said: “It is obvious that the LG (and his masters) have no place in their regime for tolerance or forbearance; or for that matter the essentials of democracy.”
Roy and Hussain are charged under IPC Sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups), 153B (assertions prejudicial to national integration), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) and 505 (public mischief), and Section 13 of anti-terror law Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
A source said: “Despite a case of sedition being made out, sanction has not been granted under Section 124A of the IPC (sedition) owing to the fact that the Supreme Court on May 11, 2022, directed in another case that all pending trials, appeals and proceedings with respect to the charge framed under Section 124A shall be kept in abeyance. Thereafter, a three-judge bench headed by the Chief Justice of India had referred the matter to a constitution bench on September 12, 2023.”
Roy and Hussain could not be reached for comment.
The source added: “Two other accused — Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a Kashmiri separatist leader, and Syed Abdul Rahman Geelani, a Delhi University lecturer who was acquitted by the Supreme Court in the Parliament attack case on technical grounds, have died during the pendency of the case.”
“Besides Roy, Hussain, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who was also the chairman of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, and S.A.R Geelani, others present on the occasion included Maoist sympathiser Varvara Rao, an accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case.”
Since 2020, the AAP government has sanctioned the prosecution of Congress leader and former JNU student Kanhaiya Kumar and others for sedition, and Umar Khalid as well as its own councillor Tahir Husain in the Delhi riots conspiracy case.
It is unclear if the lieutenant governor was acting on the recommendation of the Delhi government in granting sanction for prosecution against Roy and Hussain. After recent changes in the law, the Centre has more say than the Delhi government.