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Need to abolish sedition law

Few weeks back the Delhi Police filed a charge sheet against 10 people, including student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya, in a sedition case for allegedly raising “anti-national slogans” during an event on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus in February 2016.

There have been many incidents in recent times where “misguided” people have been termed “anti-national”. The sentiment could have been demonstrated through a slogan, a cheer, a statement, protest against a nuclear power project, or an innocuous post on social media. In all these cases, the state, across regimes, has filed charges of sedition. Of course, we know that sedition can’t be applied to instances of criticism of the government or a political functionary. More importantly, words alone are not enough for such a charge to be slapped. Incitement to violence is the most crucial ingredient of the offence of sedition.

What happened inside JNU three years ago might outrage many people, but it is a shame that the world’s largest democracy is so fragile, that it has to suppress the opinion of its youth and go to the extent of dictating to its premier educational institutions on how those within them should think and what they should think. In times like these, it seems like a sham to say that criticism of the state is the essence of democracy. In raking up the JNU issue after three years, the government is not shying away from playing politics around patriotism and nationality. Going through the numbers that the National Crime Records Bureau puts out every year, it is clear that despite the rise in sedition cases, convictions happen in barely a few. Even if these people are not convicted, the slapping of these charges is a way the governments over the years have been sending a strong message to its own people—obey or be ready to face consequences.

Before Independence, this charge was used by the British to suppress the freedom movement. Ironically, the same draconian law has become a tool that the country is now using against its own people. Instead of critically analysing why citizens, be they in Kashmir or Chhattisgarh or Bhima Koregaon, are driven to dissent, the government is using an iron-fist policy—with the sedition law playing a leading role—to completely shut out contrarian views.

The colonial-era sedition law that the British long kept as a minor offence in their own country and finally scrapped in 2009, remains indispensable for governments in India.Back in 1922 facing sedition charges for articles published in Young India, Mahatma Gandhi had told the court in no uncertain terms that preaching disaffection had become ‘almost a passion’ with him, that it would ‘be a sin to have affection’ for the system.

Gandhi was, of course, meaning the British Raj as the ‘system’, but it has to be kept in mind that successive governments in India have had no compunctions in using the sedition law against their own people. This is despite the Constitution makers dropping ‘sedition’ as one of the restrictions on freedom of speech and expression in 1950; calling sedition ‘highly objectionable and obnoxious’, Jawaharlal Nehru had said: “The sooner we get rid of it the better”. In Britain, from early 19th century onwards, sedition was considered a bailable offence requiring a unanimous jury verdict for conviction, a misdemeanour punishable by up to two years in jail — unless it was proved to be treason or inciting violence to overthrow the government. But this law has always been used against thousands for protesting a nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu, as well as a folk singer of the same State for singing about alleged profiteering of the State government from liquor shops. Clearly, there is huge scope for misuse of this vague, archaic law. It is the media that must relentlessly highlight such cases, so that the intrepid fighting public causes move the courts for relief.