My father calls me up and asks what I’ll be writing today.
I say, “sedition it is”.
“You might get arrested,” he laughs.
Today, as I write this article I’m scared of the crime I might be committing. I’m not very sure if the reader is on the safe side too. When anything can be tagged as anti-national, I’m skeptical that this write-up might not even fit in the right framework of being respectful to apna bharat mahaan!
By the way, I’ve always considered myself to be pretty country oriented- I prefer not loitering around, I’m not very biased towards any religion, I stand upright as I hear the national anthem, I do this and I do a lot of that and the regular things that most of us do everyday in the name of the nation. However,I’m not much supportive of beef ban, haven’t judged Aamir Khan for his views on tolerance/intolerance, I precisely hate caste politics, mourn the recent tragic death of Rohit Vemula and sincerely feel sad for the current mayhem at the much worshipped Jawaharlal Nehru University’s campus.
A friend from Delhi called up last night. Enraged. Infuriated. I asked what was the matter. He said he’d been to the protest at the JNU campus. I could feel the sadness in his voice. “Maybe we all are anti-nationals then. If patriotism doesn’t let you speak up, then I’m not very patriotic,” he just realised. I tried to laugh it off. I couldn’t.
It all started when an FIR was registered with respect to a public meeting organised on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus on the evening of 9th February. Various media reports claim that the meeting was about the hanging of Afzal Guru, and it is alleged that during its course, some people raised incendiary slogans. The case was registered under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (sedition), and the police have the JNUSU president, Kanhaiya Kumar, in custody since then. Marking a protest against the sedition charges, thousands of teachers, students and civil society members formed a roughly two-kilometre-long human chain at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on Sunday, as per Indian Express. In fact, a tussle broke out at Patiala House court in Delhi during the hearing of JNUSU president on 15th February’16. As per news website, DNA, students who have been demanding Kumar’s release alleged that they were roughed up by a group of lawyers when they entered the court premises. Following the same, speeches were given by the furious students as well as some teachers. Dr. Rohit, Assistant Professor of Economics at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, JNU and former President, JNUSU, gave a passionate speech at the campus with plans of taking extra lectures on Nationalism in the university campus.
The law of sedition was introduced by Sec. 124A of the IPC in 1870 as a measure to counter anti-colonial sentiments, and most major leaders of the independence movement – including Gandhi and Tilak – were tried under this provision. Gandhi famously described Sec.124A as the ‘prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen’.
While reading a post on Quora by Harshit Agarwal who is a current student at JNU, these sentences stand out- “Why are we so volatile regarding our ideas of nationalism? Why do we treat it like religion? Somebody shouts few slogans and it becomes absolute blasphemy! A university is a place for debate, discussion and dissent! Slogans should be answered by slogans, and not by sedition charges!”.
National daily, Times of India, in it’s editorial dated 16th February,2016 clearly mentions that no matter how objectionable a slogan is ,there is no law that bans speech considered “anti-national”. It further mentions how Courts have repeatedly ruled that slogans and speeches cannot be considered seditious under Section 124 of the IPC unless they involve direct and imminent incitement to violence. This implies that if this rule isn’t followed selectively, then, legislators from Jammu & Kashmir who favoured an assembly resolution on Afzal Guru would also have faced sedition charges, as would the entire Tamil Nadu assembly which in 2011 passed a resolution demanding that the three Rajiv Gandhi killers not be hanged. “For that matter Sangh Parivar followers who routinely glorify Nathuram Godse, assassin of the father of the nation, would also attract sedition charges”.
As per The Wire, a news website with founding editors as Siddharth Varadarajan (former editor at The Hindu)and Sidharth Bhatia(journalist and writer based in Mumbai), advocating revolution, or advocating even violent overthrow of the State, does not amount to sedition, unless there is incitement to violence, and more importantly, the incitement is to ‘imminent’ violence. “Mere words and phrases by themselves, no matter how distasteful, do not amount to a criminal offence unless this condition is met,” clearly says the news website.
According to a paper submitted by Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, National Law School of India University, Bangalore, titled, Sedition Laws and Death of Free Speech in India, sedition laws were used to curb dissent in England, but it was in the colonies that they assumed their most draconian form, helping to sustain imperial power in the face of rising nationalism in the colonies including India. Targets of this law included nationalists like Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Annie Besant. Though these laws have survived the demise of colonial rule yet continue to haunt media personnel, human rights activists, political dissenters and public intellectuals across the country. “It is abundantly clear that freedom of speech and expression within the Indian legal tradition includes within its ambit any form of criticism, dissent and protest. It cannot be held hostage to narrow ideas of what constitutes “anti national” speech,” it advocates.
Talking about people previously held with sedition charges, Mumbai police had arrested Indian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi on 8 September 2012 on charges of sedition in response to a complaint filed by a lawyer on the grounds that his cartoons were designed to denigrate national symbols and spread anger and hatred against the state. In fact, the sedition law was misapplied to convict civil rights activist Binayak Sen and once registered a case against writer Arundhati Roy and others for speeches made on Kashmir, which gave a voice to the debate on the relevance of the law on sedition in India. The particular injustice of convicting a person who has merely exercised his constitutional right to freedom of expression has yet again attracted the nation’s attention to the draconian colonial legacy of a hundred and forty six year old law.
Should a colonial legacy like sedition law, which assumes affection for the state as a natural condition and expects citizens not to show any kind of enmity, contempt, hatred or hostility towards the government established by law, should have a place in a largely democratic state like India? The case for revoking the law of sedition in India is rooted in its impact on the ability of citizens to freely express themselves as well as to constructively criticise or express dissent against their government. The very existence of sedition laws on the statute books has yet again proved to be a threat to our democratic values.