On 11 January, octogenarian writer Hiren Gohain, social worker Akhil Gogoi and journalist Manjit Mahanta were arrested by police in Assam and put in jail. The charge: they spoke at a public programme oppositing the Central government's move for amending the Indian citizenship act and expelling lacs of people.
Two days later, in Delhi, Kanhaiya Kumar, former chairman of Jawaharlal Nehru University students union, Umer Khalid and seven other individuals were charge-sheeted by the police. Their guilt: three years ago, they organized a commemorative function in the name of Afzal Gufu who was sentenced and hanged following the parliament attack case. The question is: in a democratic order, is organising a protest, or criticising government's policies and stances a crime? India, the world's largest democracy, says not only that it is a crime, but also that it constitutes the crime of sedition. As per Section 124A of Indian Penal Code, "whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India…" is guilty of sedition and " shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine."
It is in a country, where a constitution exists that gives right to freedom of expression and propagation of opinions, where constant verbal exchanges happen between the ruling parties and opposition in legislatures and the street, and they raise arguments back and forth to capture power of unseat those in power, that a law of imperial era which seeks to chop off the finger raised aginst the government continues to exist. Alternating governments are not only not prepared to depart from this draconian set-up, but even use it as a weapon at the face of popular protests against their anti-people policies.
Despite having banished British imperialism and won political freedom through arduous struggles, the country has not yet made up its mind to discard the leftovers of the royal rule that feared criticism and adverse review of government actions. And hence the continued use against Indians even today of a law that was introduced by Thomas Macaulay in 1833 to prevent any disloyalty of Indian subjects towards the emperor of India sitting in London. Our nationalist movement was launched into the public domain as freedom struggle with speeches and publications for expression of thoughts. And that was why laws such as the 1870 sedition law, followed by the 1876 act to ban artistic expressions and yet another law in 1878 to control local newspapers were introduced with the aim of muzzling all opposition. Although the British did away with their sedition law in 2010, India has not moved even one step in that direction.
Despite the number amendments to our constitution made in 1950 crossing hundred, we have not yet found it time to reform laws like the white man's gift of this sedition law. On the other hand, mainstream political parties have been busy sharing power or the critical voices and protests against governments, and set about portraying popular resistance moves as anti-national moves with charges of crime and punishment. And that is how the dire indictments and denunciations of the ruling establishment including the prime minister by the Opposition leaders and political parties are deemed democratic, whereas lamentations about the people's misery under the government and its inefficacy constitute sedition. In fact, the tone and tenor of criticisms by social and voluntary activists supported by facts and figures are nowhere near the war of words between ruling and opposition leaders.
But then, it may be the mutual understanding between the ruling and oppositoin forces that the it is all a compromise politics that makes them let it go. At the same time, voluntary movements and social organizations who call a spade a spade against the governmental excesses are reined in by the government who try to mute their criticisms. It is for that, that they are sharpening, shining and then nwielding once again the old imperialist weapon. It took three years after the incident and a 1,200-page charge sheet to determine the sedition of JNU students. That too when the general election is round the corner. As stated by former central home minister P Chidambaram and prominent Congress & Opposition leaders including former law minister Kapil Sibal, the present arrest and charge-sheet are purely politically motivated, and the law which is a colonial hangover designed to enable the government to suppress contrarian voices should be thrown away.
It is another matter that even the Congress had abused this black law during its term. And it was during the previous central government's term that in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu, sedition law was invoked against about 9,000 people including local fishermen for protesting against the nuclear power plant there. Mostly thanks to the intervention of the judiciary, such cases generally get nowhere. But by that time, the victims of prosecution lose not only their life and health, but their future too with the added stigma of anti-national being slapped on them.
When this law was declared unconstitutional in 1959 by the Allahabad High court, the government that should have initiated an overhaul, entered into a legal battle. In 1962, the Supreme Court decreed that the law will not apply to mere speeches or protests but only acts that foment disorder and mutiny against the country. Even then, instead of attempting legislative reform, the government chose to insert the excluded acts and persisted with the law. Therefore, to save the country's own citizens from state-terrorism, this law has to be totally scrapped. And to that end, political leadership should not stop with mere calls, but urgently initiate practical measures.