UP sarpanch briefly booked for sedition; brother says based on fake video by rivals

On 10 May, Aslam, a newly elected sarpanch in Uttar Pradesh’s Sitapur district, was sent to jail on sedition charges and subsequently denied bail. The police dropped the sedition charge in July. Courtesy Shakeel Ahmed
17 July, 2021

On 10 May, Aslam, a newly elected sarpanch in Uttar Pradesh’s Sitapur district, was sent to jail on sedition charges. That month, a sessions court denied Aslam bail on the grounds that he was accused of “grave” and “serious” offences. On 3 July, with Aslam still in custody, the police submitted a chargesheet in court in which they dropped the offence of sedition. Aslam’s case points to the ease with which the police use the provision as a political tool to book and arrest individuals under sedition. According to Shakeel Ahmed, Aslam’s brother, the police had registered the case under pressure from activists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bajrang Dal, on the basis of a fake video created by the candidates Aslam defeated in the polls.

Shortly after Aslam’s victory, on 2 May, a video went viral in which some voices were heard shouting “Aslam Bhaiya Zindabad”—Hail brother Aslam—and “Pakistan Zindabad”—Hail Pakistan. The video was shot in the dark, and the faces of those shouting the slogans were not visible. The police accused Aslam and his supporters of raising slogans that hurt religious sentiments and incited hatred toward the Indian government. But Ahmed said neither Aslam nor his supporters had carried out any such rally. Rahul Nishad, a seven-year-old boy from a neighbouring village, told me that he was among a group children who had been paid by persons associated with Aslam’s rival candidates to chant the slogans.

According to Ahmed, Aslam and his supporters did not know at the time of their arrest who made the video or the identity of those shouting the slogans. The voices appear to be those of children and young people. The video was circulated through social media and caught the notice of the local police. The Thangaon police station, in Rewsa block, registered a first-information report on 7 May, and arrested Aslam and three others three days later for the offences of sedition and promoting enmity between different groups. The FIR added that the rally violated COVID-19 safety protocols.

Aslam is the elected sarpanch of the Belauta panchayat, in Sitapur’s Rewsa block. According to Ahmed, there are around one thousand voters in this Hindu-majority panchayat, with a little over a hundred Muslim voters. He added that in the panchayat election held on 29 April, Aslam secured 408 votes, while his nearest rival, Gulab Singh, lost after getting 286 votes.

Ahmed said that Aslam and his team were in the Rewsa block till the early morning hours of 3 May—the night of the counting day. He added that they returned to Belauta village after the counting of votes at around 4 am. “On 7 May, inspector Anil Kumar of Thangaon police station called my brother,” Ahmed told me. “On reaching there, we were shown a video where the slogans ‘Aslam Bhaiya Zindabad,’ ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ were chanted. The inspector asked, ‘Who made this video?’ My brother said that he had no knowledge about that. Since no one's face is visible in this video, it is difficult to recognise. We said that we will listen to it and will notify him if any voice is detected. Also, we will find out at our level. After this the inspector said that we can go.”

The next day, on 8 May, the inspector called Aslam to the police station again. “The inspector told my brother that there is a lot of pressure,” Ahmed said. “A case has been registered against him related to the violation of protocol during the pandemic.” Aslam and three of his supporters—Atiq, Farid and Salman—were booked under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code which pertains to “deliberate or malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings”; Section 188, which relates to disobeying an order by a public servant; Section 269, which pertains to a negligent act likely to spread the infection of a potentially fatal disease; and under the Epidemic Diseases Act. All four were released on bail the same day. Ahmed emphasised that until that point, there were no sedition charges against Aslam.

According to Ahmed, on 10 May, Bajrang Dal and RSS activists protested in Belauta village. He said that Chandra Prakash Shukla, another panchayat election candidate who contested against Aslam, was present at the protest along with his brother Anuj Shukla. Ahmed added that Anuj is a worker of the Bajrang Dal. “After this, the police administration sent four people including my brother to jail, adding a sedition section,” Ahmed said. The same day, a trial court denied bail to the four. Subsequently, the sessions court also denied them bail. In its reasoning for denying bail, the court said, “Since the applicant has allegedly committed grave & serious offence, and thus, there being every possibility of the applicant's fleeing away from the reach of justice, winning over prosecution witnesses and tampering with the prosecution evidence, the grant of bail in this case  … shall be fatal to the larger interests of the public and of the State.”

Ahmed believed that the viral video was made on the behest of Aslam’s opponents, Gulab and Chandra Prakash. “My brother was sent to jail on a fabricated charge of sedition on the basis of a fake video on the conspiracy of Gulab Singh and Chandra Prakash,” he said. “The police administration has taken this action without any investigation.” Ahmed said that looking at the video, it was clear to him that it had not been shot in Belauta but another nearby village. He said that his team went to the village, spoke to villagers there, and got to know about origins of the video.

 “In the FIR, the video was said to have been made in our village Belauta,” Ahmed continued. “We did our investigation and found out that this video was shot in the sub-village Godian Purva, which is a kilometre away from our village. Actually our rivals Chandra Prakash and Gulab Singh have been frustrated after their defeat in panchayat election.” Ahmed claimed that the video was made by Shubham and Ramcharan, two supporters of the opposing candidates, who bribed a few children in Godian Purva to raise slogans as they shot the video. “When we contacted the children who raised the slogans, they accepted that they had been given money to raise the slogan,” Ahmed said.

 I contacted one of the children independently to verify Ahmed’s claim. I spoke to Rahul Nishad, a seven-year-old resident of Godian Purva and the son of Darshan Nishad. He confirmed that he had been paid to chant the slogans. “Shubham and Ramcharan gave us Rs 1,000 asking us to raise 'Pakistan Zindabad' slogans,” Rahul said. “As we raised the slogans Ramcharan and Shubham made the video.”

Darshan also confirmed that Rahul had told him about the incident. “Although I was not at home when the slogans were raised, Rahul told me that when Shubham asked to raise slogans, they raised slogans,” Darshan said. “I scolded Rahul saying, ‘He instigated you to raise slogans. What have you children done?’ Now if the police will interrogate us, then we are ready to tell the truth.”

Ramcharan confirmed his role in making the video but denied bribing the children. “The thing about giving money is absolutely wrong,” he told me. “Fifteen to twenty people came out in a procession to Godian Purva at 3–4 am on the night of counting. They were shouting slogans of ‘Pakistan Zindabad.’ I did not see any of the people who were raising the slogans. I just took the video and dialled 100 and informed the police.” I was unable to reach Shubham for comment.

 Meanwhile, Gulab and Chandra Prakash both denied having any role in the making of the video. “The video was made by Ramcharan, which he also confessed, but we did not make it,” Singh told me. “I did not see the rally, because I came home at 1 am in the night and went to sleep. The rally did not pass near my house. But I have heard that the rally took place in the village." 

Chandra Prakash made a similar claim. “The allegation that I made the video is completely false,” he said. “Aslam's brothers are making this allegation in their defence. We did not see that rally. When we came at night, we were exhausted and fell asleep. But people told us that the rally took place.”

The video was also publicised on social media by Bajrang Dal workers. Sandeep Awasthi, Bajrang Dal's Sitapur district convener, confirmed that he had tweeted and subsequently deleted the video after the police took note of it. “There was news from the workers that a rally was taken out in the joy of victory and slogans of ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ were raised. I tweeted that video. After that the police took action,” Awasthi told me. “Later I took down the tweet.” He denied that Bajrang Dal had taken part in a protest in the village. “Many organisations were active,” he said, adding that it was the RSS that had protested.

However, a Facebook post from a self-proclaimed Bajrang Dal worker contradicts this. Aryan Soni, who describes himself as the Rewsa block convener of Bajrang Dal, posted on 11 May, “A case of sedition was registered after the Bajrang Dal protested. Four people, including the newly elected head, were sent to jail.”

I spoke to several local police officials about the case and Ahmed’s accusations before and after the police had submitted the chargesheet. “Aslam's case is being investigated, while about the video, it will be sent for forensic investigation through us,” Narendra Pratap Singh, Sitapur’s additional superintendent of police, told me before the chargesheet was filed. “The video is of the night, so it was not clearly recorded,” Sant Kumar Singh, the station house office of the Thangaon police station told me. “But it is a matter of a village, so it is not very difficult to find out truth. What is the truth, it will be known. Whatever is right will happen, injustice will not be done to anyone.” He added, “During the investigation, statements came out on the issue of raising slogans, but the matter of raising slogans by paying money has not been confirmed.”

 Shivshankar Prasad, the circle officer of Mahmudabad tehsil, with jurisdiction over the Rewsa block, appeared to have more certain conclusions on the nature of the video. When asked where the video is from, he said, “The video is from Aslam's village, after the victory some people were raising slogans of ‘Pakistan Zindabad.’ Then someone made this video.” Referring to Aslam’s supporters, he added that the three people who “were shouting slogans” were sent to jail. When asked again if the place where the video was shot is visible, he continued, “It was chanted in Belauta village. We know everything and have all the information in written, come and see the case diary.” When asked if it appeared during the investigation at Aslam had been purposely accused, Prasad said, “You feel this way, not us.”

 I asked Prasad about the allegation that the case against Aslam was registered after the Bajrang Dal protested. “Nothing like that,” he said. “The way this video reached the police, in the same way it reached Sandeep Awasthi, he tweeted. After coming to the notice, the case was registered after investigation.” When asked if the video had the voice of children, Prasad continued, “Sounds like it. But the procession belongs to Aslam, elders are also speaking, children are also speaking. The voices of elders may not have been recorded.” He added that after “questioning the people around” about the video, and getting confidential information, Aslam’s “name came to the fore.”

 However, in the chargesheet submitted on 3 July after their investigation, the police noted that based on the evidence available, the “offence of section 124A was not found.” I contacted the police again after the sedition charge had been removed. “The tweets related to the matter were seen, and the posts on Facebook were seen, on the basis of which the statements of the people around the area and the spot were taken, on the basis of which this action was taken,” Sant Kumar, the Thangaon SHO told me. I asked Sant Kumar if the police looked into the allegation that children were bribed and what they found during their investigation. “Children are children after all, the intellectual ability of those children is assessed, whether it was their own wish or it was a situation where there was a group, one person spoke, and then all the people spoke while they were not paying attention, it also happens like is,” he said. When asked whether there would be any action taken against those who made the children shout slogans, he continued, “If we see any evidence, we will take action, no one is above the law.”

 Santosh Pandey, a resident of Belauta village, questioned the police’s case and described Aslam’s role in the village. “Injustice has been done to him,” Pandey said. “Villagers love him so much that if elections are held today, he will get more votes than before. If anyone fell ill in the village, he used to take his car for treatment, he used to spend money for their treatment when needed, he never saw whether the needy villagers were Hindu or Muslim.  He used to see everyone the same. Such a person can never raise such slogans.” Pandey continued, “The people against him have made them a victim of their conspiracy. It is the Bajrang Dal who have implicated Aslam. These people put pressure on the police to send Aslam to jail or else they would go to the top officials. The whole village is waiting for him to get released soon.”

In June, Zakir Ali Tyagi, a social activist filed a complaint in the National Human Rights Commission, alleging that the police had abused their power and recklessly applied the sedition charge. Ahmed has further filed a petition for bail in the Allahabad High Court. “There is a lot of hope for justice from there,” he said.

I spoke to CB Pandey, a senior advocate of the Allahabad High Court and Aslam’s lawyer on the legality of the case. “Section 124A cannot be imposed just by raising slogans, so the investigating officer removed this section,” he said. “If there was a violence after the slogan, the evidence would have been received by the investigating officer, then this section would not have been removed.” He added that the video by itself is not sufficient evidence. “You must have seen in how many cases videos are presented but due to lack of oral evidence, the cases do not stand.  Secondly, no one is seen shouting slogans in this video.” He added, “Merely raising slogans does not constitute an offense of 124A”— sedition. “Many such cases came to the Supreme Court but were not accepted. That is why the sedition case against Aslam does not stand on the slogan.”