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Why We Might As Well Broaden The Reach Of The Sedition Law

22/08/2016 3:02 PM IST | Updated 25/08/2016 8:40 AM IST
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Yuji Sakai

When Mahatma Gandhi was charged with sedition for writing articles challenging the British government, he welcomed it saying that people should be free to express their disaffection toward the government as long as they weren't inciting violence. The sedition law brought in by the ruling British was a self-centred manoeuvre, activated by anxiety and trepidation, and only aimed at protecting their own interests and surely not of the wider nation. When Jawaharlal Nehru became India's first Prime Minister, he sought to repeal this law, which operating as an ancillary colonizing weapon, in the guise of legitimate regulation, was now obsolete in a liberated nation. Despite trying to do away with it and calling it highly objectionable and obnoxious, parliamentarians insisted on retaining the British law.

[The sedition law] appears to be used only to monitor, accuse and discipline people or entities who question or satirize the State or its projected idea...

What was once an overworked weapon that had lost its firepower, the sedition law, as if it were spoils of war, has been appropriated and refurbished by free India, and again with the danger of its misuse on its own people.

In bald terms, this is what the sedition law, Section 124A in the Indian Penal Code, says:

"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, 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."

If this is the remit of the law, which evidently is a large one and open to broader interpretation, it appears to be used only to monitor, accuse and discipline people or entities who question or satirize the State or its projected idea, and its unofficial sympathizers and beneficiaries. Surely to excite dissatisfaction towards an elected government, is also to undermine the electorate. The State and the people cannot be farther apart in the case of an invading and colonising power, where a sedition law is loyal only to one side. But in a free State, governed by its own people, such a law, if at all it exists, should perform for the wider population, not just the elected administration and its own idea of nation.

Over the years the sedition law has been slapped on people for allegedly declaring war against India. These have included a cartoonist supposedly insulting the nation by replacing the lions on the national emblem with hungry wolves, a singer in Tamil Nadu singing against the government, a local leader for sending offensive messages about the Prime Minister, a school principal for inaccurately depicting the map of India, and more recently Amnesty International for organizing an event to protest the alleged atrocities by Indian security forces in Kashmir, where supposedly cries of 'Azadi' or Freedom were heard.

The sedition law should be a defender of the broader values of humanity, and not just an expunger of insults of national symbols or electoral mandates.

If a nation comes into being when a group of people who feel an affiliation towards each other, share the same ethics and express a desire to protect these, then the sedition law should be a defender of the broader values of humanity, and not just an expunger of insults of national symbols or electoral mandates. If the current censorship is justified in protecting nationhood, then along with penalizing cartoonists for interchanging animals on the national symbol, privileged actors who have allegedly hunted and murdered chinkaras, the state animal of Rajasthan, should also be tried under the sedition law. If singers challenging the political system are punished, then other performers who degrade the women of India by singing songs with lyrics such as "I'm a rapist", should also be booked under the sedition law.

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