Can The Ramya Case Jolt India Into Preventing Misuse Of Sedition Law?

If the ludicrous controversy can have any silver lining at all.

24/08/2016 8:01 PM IST | Updated 24/08/2016 8:21 PM IST
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Kannada actress and Congress leader Ramya at Parliament House.

Gandhiji had his experiments with truth. His descendants in India today are having their experiments with sedition.

There seems to be a race on to set the bar ever lower when it comes to defining sedition.

The latest target, of course, is Divya Spandana, aka Ramya, the Kannada actor-turned-politician who had the temerity to say "Pakistan is not hell" after the defence minister Manohar Parrikar said "Pakistan mein jaana aur narak mein jaana ek hi hai (Going to Pakistan is the same as going to hell)." He had his context for saying that. He was talking in connection with infiltration along the Line of Control where he said India jawans had killed five militants and sent them "home" so to speak. Ramya had her own context having gone to Pakistan as part of a young SAARC parliamentarians' conference.

READ: 'Let's Look Around And Introspect On How Different We Are': Ramya On Pakistan Controversy

For this outrageous act of anti-nationalism she now faces an FIR thanks to a lawyer in her home state. K. Vittal Gowda thinks that Ramya has "insulted India" by standing up for Pakistan because he read her statement and decided that something had to be done to "stop people praising our enemy nation" even as it exports terror to India.

Of course, the fact that Mr. Gowda has just launched his own organization Prajaranga to clean up politics is probably a coincidence. That this little storm in a teacup could be a real profile boost for his two-week-old organization surely did not cross this hyper patriot's mind. This is publicity money can't buy but an FIR can.

Gowda is not a BJP member. So there's no pointing fingers at the BJP whose national spokesperson has stressed this has nothing to do with the party. But the BJP has been trying to both distance itself from Gowda but also ride on his lawyerly coattails. State BJP president Prahlad Joshi says, "Ramya can go to Pakistan with her beloved leaders Rahul Gandhi and Digvijaya Singh".

State general secretary C T Ravi tweeted, "Those who believe Pakistan is actually heaven should take next available flight to be warmly welcomed by Terrorists, Rapists and Mullahs." And the ABVP national general secretary Vinay Bidare also says, "I must say that Ramya should not have made such a remark, especially when Pakistan is trying to do everything to destablise our country."

Even if that is true that does not mean Pakistan is hell though. During the Cold War the USA did it's level best to destabilize Cuba. Did that make the United States "hell"?

What the BJP's verbal dance reveals however is that after having actively fine-honed sedition into a weapon of opposition destruction, the BJP cannot get off its high horse. Ramya has had her posters burned and slippers thrown at them because the government has made it a practice to administer the Pakistan litmus test to everyone except its own. Modi-ji is allowed to gift Nawaaz Sharif a pink turban and attend his granddaughter's wedding festivities. But Ramya is not allowed to express her personal opinion about her experience in Pakistan? Why? Because according to Gowda it is "desh droha" to rebut the defence minister. When did the defence minister become synonymous with the desh itself?

READ: Sedition Case Against Actor-Politician Ramya For 'Pakistan Is Not Hell' Comment

The BJP made Go to Pakistan its default chant against any dissent (and rewarded Giriraj Singh, who famously said Modi critics should go to Pakistan, with a ministry). Now it should not be surprised that others have picked up on it as well because they have realized the sedition law is available for rampant misuse.

The BJP's latest target is Amnesty International for the Azad Kashmir slogans raised at its event in Bengaluru. As journalist Shekhar Gupta tweeted, it is "utter madness, serial madness" that even as Modi raises the issue of human rights in Gilgit and Balochistan, B.S. Yedurappa in Karnataka says that Amnesty should be banned here as well because more than 20 countries have banned Amnesty. What Yedurappa did not mention were the countries that banned Amnesty. Azerbaijan and Myanmar are hardly bastions of human rights and does India really want to be in that club? Amnesty's job is not to be in any government's good books and it's been criticized by many countries, including the USA and Canada.

But this Ramya controversy is really a sideshow for a larger project to target Amnesty. The abuse of sedition charges certainly did not begin with the BJP but the net is being cast every further and ever wider. The roll call of people accused of sedition in India is long and illustrious and spans many different governments--Arundhati Roy, Assem Trivedi, Binayak Sen, Aamir Khan, S Kovan, Kanhaiya Kumar and Kashmiri students cheering the Pakistani cricket team. Ramya joins the list.

A PIL has been filed in the Supreme Court seeking a review of all cases facing a sedition charge. It points out that out of 58 people arrested via 48 cases filed in 2014 alone, the government managed only one conviction. The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that only acts that lead to violence or incitement to violence can be constituted as a seditious act. Lawrence Liang pointed out on Kafila the court has even acquitted those shouting "Khalistan zindabad, raj karega Khalsa" after Indira Gandhi's assassination. But that has not stopped governments from trying their luck anyway because the main object is not legal victory but harassment along the way. Sedition is a non-bailable and cognizable offence and a handy blunt instrument for any government to have. The British realized it during the Raj. And the Indian government is unwilling to let it go either.

The PIL demands that approval must be sought from the Director-General of Police or Commissioner of Police before lodging an FIR for sedition. It's not a perfect solution since police can bend with the political wind. But at least it's a beginning.

If the ludicrous Ramya case has any silver lining at all, it might be that it could push the court into tightening the screws on this rampant and flagrant misuse of the sedition clause.

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