The lion inside the sedition circus

live mint | Sugata Srinivasaraju | March 09, 2020

  • Karnataka filed a slew of sedition cases against protesters in recent weeks. One lawyer is standing up for all of them
  • In all ongoing cases, Venkatesh’s argument is that the defendants were merely expressing dissent. He had to step in as several bar associations refused legal support to the accused

BENGALURU : It has been two-years-and-six-months since Gauri Lankesh, activist and editor of a Kannada weekly, was killed. In the eyes of her assassins, she was a symbol of dissent who frequently crossed the line for two decades—ever since she took over her father’s outrageously bold weekly newspaper.

If her death had really struck fear into the hearts of liberals, there should have been an eerie quiet. The slogans in the air must have permanently died down. However, Karnataka has instead emerged as one of the many Ground Zeros of the nationwide anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests and the site of a slew of sedition charges in recent weeks. Curiously, the lawyer intricately entangled in each of these sedition cases is Lankesh’s former lawyer, Bubberjung Trisuli Venkatesh, a senior advocate and former state public prosecutor.

Bubberjung is a moniker or a nickname, which means “the man who fought like a lion”. The peculiar title is from one of Venkatesh’s ancestors, who fought on the side of Hyder Ali against the British in the first Mysore war.

In legal circles, the moniker is taken seriously. Venkatesh has a particular reputation for taking on cases involving the right to free expression. It has inevitably brought him in contact with people who dissent. “He is a unique lawyer, and is highly respected in human rights circles,” said Babu Mathew, a professor at National Law School of India University in Bengaluru.

Venkatesh defended Lankesh in over 70 cases across a 20-year period. In her absence, he could have moved on to routine engagements in his profession. But then, the anti-CAA protestors showed up on the radar.

To get the chronology of Karnataka’s early-2020 spree of sedition charges right, there are essentially five different cases which have attracted extreme provisions of the law in frighteningly quick succession.

First, it was the case of a student, Nalini Balakumar, in Mysuru. Then, it was minors who performed in a political play at a school in Bidar. At around the same time, the case of Koppal poet, Siraj Bisaralli, acquired prominence. Then, three Kashmiri engineering students in Hubli made news. Latest is the case of activist Amulya Leona in Bengaluru. If one were to calculate the average age of those being prosecuted by the state, it is a ridiculous low 15 years.

This chronology acquires significance in the backdrop of the Mangaluru violence of 19 December 2019, when police were alleged to have opened fire on an unsuspecting crowd of Muslims. There were deaths and grievous injuries. When this came under national scrutiny, it could be argued, the state constructed a volatile defence by portraying an edgy picture of “anti-national” activity—stretching from Mysuru to Bidar—and charged the most innocuous acts with the gravest of law.

A legal battle in the courts regarding the Mangaluru violence is running in parallel to the sedition cases. On 7 March, the Supreme Court stayed the bail given by the Karnataka high court (HC) to 21 of the accused. Earlier, the HC had observed that there was an attempt “to cover police excesses” and “trump up evidence”.

The protesters

If one were to start with Mysuru, all that Balakumar did was to hold a placard in a protest meeting on 8 January which said “Free Kashmir”. Being a student herself, she said she was expressing solidarity with the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University who had been assaulted.

She was not charged immediately, but the police examined media coverage and singled her out for the placard that had black letters on a red background. The sedition case against her made news, but what also grabbed the headlines was the Mysore Bar Association lawyers’ refusal to represent her. They had pre-judged her as “anti-national”.

But lawyers from outside Mysuru jumped in to help. “Some 40 young lawyers came to my office, took my vakaalat papers, got a few other seniors involved, and finally ensured around 170 advocates appeared in the case,” said Venkatesh. “Those many lawyers appearing in support of a single petition was unheard of.”

The Mysuru court eventually granted anticipatory bail to Balakumar. The construct of “Free Kashmir” in her mind was about liberty and personal freedoms that the Constitution guarantees, not separatism. But the police conveniently chose to interpret it otherwise.

The Bidar case looks complicated because it involves primary school children, but it has even less to do with sedition than Balakumar’s case. It was a three-minute-33-second play in the Dakkani language, which was aimed at questioning the need for CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). It was staged on 21 January as part of the annual day celebrations at Shaheen School. There was allegedly a line of abuse against the Prime Minister in the play.

“Muslims in this country feel they are being disowned by this country (through CAA and NRC) and the play made this the theme. There was an imaginary dialogue between a grandmother and a granddaughter, which became contentious,” explained Venkatesh.

A truncated version of the play which got shared on social media created a distortion. In full, it is laced with humour and contains elements of satire and absurd drama.

It begins with the child telling her grandmother that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is asking for documents, and if she cannot produce it, she will be sent out of the country. The panic-stricken grandmother responds by saying that all the documents are in the graveyard where her husband and family elders are buried. The child again brings up the threat of being thrown out, at which point an enraged grandmother wonders how a boy who was selling tea, and grew up in their midst, could ask them to prove that they belonged to the place. She utters the phrase or abuse that became controversial, and picks up her slipper.

The play does not end there. The child goes to the neighbour to ask how they have managed their documents. The ingenious neighbour says a mouse ate their documents, then a cat ate the mouse, a dog ate the cat, and the municipality took away the dog. Hence, their documents were safe with the government. The neighbour suggests that the documents of the child’s family must have gone in the garbage heap, and since the municipality took away the garbage, their documents too were safe with the government.

The political pressure

A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) activist who watched the truncated play on social media went to the police. When an FIR (first information report) was registered against the school management and the principal, they asked Venkatesh to represent them. He asked for a copy of the FIR, which took them two days to procure. In the meantime, the police visited the school, paraded the children who participated in the play and interrogated them for four days.

When the police asked the children who had taught them the play, one nervous girl pointed to a teacher who oversaw the production, and also mentioned her mother. The police charged the school management, the teacher and the mother with sedition. What followed is a litany of Kafkaesque events.

In Bidar, there is a principal district and sessions judge’s court, and an additional district judge’s court. But the additional judge, before whom this case was to originally come up, has not been appointed in a while. Further twist: the two prosecutors for the two courts have retired. Therefore, the prosecutor had to come from Gulbarga, and he came only for three days in a week.

The judge was absent, prosecutors were missing, but the state remained enthusiastic about sedition. As a result of this accumulation of odd circumstances, the bail was delayed by 11 days to Nazbunissa, the mother, and Fareeda Begum, the teacher. Later, granting bail to the Shaheen school authorities on 3 March, the court observed that “ingredients of sedition are not prima facie made out” and the “play had not caused any disharmony in the society.”

Coming to the abuse per se in the play, Venkatesh explains the cultural nuances: “It is the most common cultural expression of women in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, and it is only an alibi for abuse, not real abuse. Locally, it is not classified as an abuse. At most it is disapproval or disapprobation. The grandmother in the play is only indignant, not seditious.”

In the Hubli case, involving three Kashmiri students, the police were not enthusiastic to file a sedition charge. They knew singing a song that had three different endings for three national contexts (Pakistan, India and Bangladesh), and posting it on social media, did not add up to sedition.

They had registered a simple complaint, given station bail to the students and had packed them off to their hostels. But subsequently, local BJP politicians brought pressure to charge them with sedition. To compound the matter, the Hubli Bar Association passed a resolution that nobody should represent the boys. They took their cue from Mysuru. They also wrote to the state bar association urging them to direct every lawyer and every bar association in the state not to represent this case.

“The moment we came to know of this, I, along with 24 other colleagues, filed a petition in the High Court. We prayed for the decision of the local bar association to be quashed,” said Venkatesh. The former advocate general of the state, Ravivarma Kumar, argued the case for him. Chief Justice Abhay Srinivas Oka asked the petitioners a simple question: “You have challenged the decision of the bar, but are you willing to conduct the case?”

Nearly 30 advocates filed an affidavit in the court within 24 hours stating that they were willing to represent the accused. The Hubli Bar Association eventually had to tender an apology and withdrew the boycott.

The unresolved questions

In the case of poet Siraj, he was not charged with sedition, but was accused of abusing the Prime Minister and breaching peace. But under the sections he has been charged, the complainant has to be the PM himself, so it may not stand, and anyway, he has been released on bail.

In the more recent case of Leona in Bengaluru, which happened in the full glare of television cameras, she faltered while making a distinction between raising slogans for India and for Pakistan. “How does this attract sedition?” asks Venkatesh, who is arguing for her.

“Her police custody was sought on flimsy grounds like checking her address, taking her to her native village, etc. There is no recovery to be made in her case. ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ cannot be recovered. It is not an object. In the Bidar case, the chappal could be recovered. Here, there is no such thing. Amulya’s case too is one of disapprobation and not sedition,” he says.

Venkatesh is likely to remain in the thick of events in the days ahead, as he has over these last two months. When asked what do people make of someone who has steadfastly been on the side of “anti-nationals”, he answers with a guffaw, and wry humour: “They don’t know what to make of me, because I do not carry a surname but a Persian title.” The reference of course is to the nickname: Bubberjung.

It is just one of the many curious things about the man. Was it his decision to adapt the title? “No, my grandfather dropped our upper-caste surname, Rao, and kept the title,” he said. How does a lawyer fighting sedition cases in far-flung regions of Karnataka end up with a Persian surname? In the time of CAA and NRC, that question about how one can let identities merge seamlessly may be as important as the ones Venkatesh raises in court.