What a strange country we live in. In the last few days two very different entities have tripped over two archaic laws left behind by the British. That this has happened just around the grand hoopla about our 70th Independence Day from the British only adds an extra layer of irony to the whole mess.
On one hand, there is Amnesty International facing a charge of sedition under Section 124 (A) of the Indian Penal Code for anti-Indian slogans raised at a discussion on Kashmir it hosted in Bengaluru.
On the other hand, Punjab Police have arrested Satish Kumar, the head of a cow vigilante group, accused of extortion, rioting and wrongful confinement of the cattle, allegedly smuggled. And also sex against the order of nature. He has been booked under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code because one of his victims has claimed he was sodomised by Kumar after being robbed of ₹1 lakh.
Both laws are left behind by the Brits and both have been prone to rampant misuse. In his column in The Telegraph, Ruchir Joshi singles both out as "flat-earth laws" we should have got rid of long ago. "Since we haven't done this, people in power often misuse the sedition provision in the IPC to suppress or attack their political opponents or critics of their regime," writes Joshi.
And 377 has been used by police to target gay men, used against a married man cheating on his wife with another man, and now against this gau rakshak who also stands accused of urinating in his victim's mouth. Let's be clear, this is not about sex, natural or unnatural. This is about sexual assault, a way for one man to show his power over another. This has nothing to do with homosexuality or sex between consenting adults. And that's the problem with 377. Its ambit is so broad and vague, that two gay men in their bedroom are as liable to come under its hammer as a thug brutally assaulting another man. And that is why 377 must be read down, so that what should really be punishable, for example assault, can be punished by law.
Sedition, likewise, is prone to oft-tossed charge of "anti-national". Thus the slogan shouters whether at the Amnesty event or JNU are anti-national and thus ipso facto deemed seditious. Joshi writes the "first thing we need to remind ourselves, every single time we hear the phrase, is that there is no crime under the Indian Penal Code marked 'anti-national'". The British Empire would certainly not want to admit the India was a "nation" after all. Yet we adroitly couple the sedition provision with the anti-national charge to bulldoze dissent in this country.
The Karnataka government has backtracked on the charges with the Home Minister saying, "I do not believe Amnesty International conducted any seditious activity." Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, just the darling of nationalist Indians the other day for his famous speech in Britain demanding symbolic reparations for colonialism, is now AntiNational No. 1 for saying, "National security of our country is not going to be compromised by a few people shouting slogans. We are stronger than that, we are bigger than that, we are better than that." Tharoor suggested we move on from the controversy now that the state government was also backing away.
Fat chance. The BJP and its student wing the ABVP always see a golden opportunity in fishing in troubled anti-national waters. Arun Jaitley has accused the Congress of playing "votebank politics" saying, "Four days ago, in the capital of Karnataka, during a programme in Bangalore, 'Azadi' (freedom) slogans were raised by a few people. An organization, which gets funding from abroad, organized the event and yesterday I read the statement of Karnataka Home Minister in which he said that whatever happened is nothing wrong."
Jaitley might think it's wrong to raise an azadi slogan but does that mean it's automatically seditious? All reports suggest Amnesty staff worked quickly to defuse the situation and cool tempers, but Jaitley's remarks and the ABVP's protests show the BJP is happy to play its own votebank politics on the issue as well.
But the key is of course, the ominous phrase "an organization which gets funding from abroad." Amnesty International, like many other NGOs, is not a favourite of the government's. A senior Home Ministry official has already indicated that its application to open a hub to look after its activities in South Asia (excluding India) and bring foreign funds for its operations will probably be nixed by the government. They will be told to register under FCRA first, which they have refused to do before saying it is a "much-abused" law that is used "too often to curb the freedom of expression of NGOs."
The Bengaluru incident, even if it gets dismissed by a court, or dropped by the state government, is too tempting for the central government to ignore. It can use its favourite blunt instrument of "anti-national" which has considerable popular support and tighten the screws on an NGO that it dislikes at the same time.
Tharoor said, "What we need is a law that criminalises any appeal to violence and incitement to violence and encouragement to violence but not the expression of political opinions or opinions we don't like." Likewise, what we need when it comes to 377 is a law which can tackle assault, molestation, pedophilia, male rape (the current rape law does not do that), but not sex between consenting adults.
As for the anti-national part, if we have to go after someone, there are far more deserving candidates than slogan-shouting hotheads at an NGO function. Let's go after those who truly let down their nation like the officials at Rio who could not be bothered to staff the India stand at the refreshment points along the marathon route to give marathon runner O.P. Jaisha water and glucose biscuits. She collapsed at the end and, according to reports, needed seven bottles of glucose to recover. Even there she was tended not by India's official team doctor but by Rio officials.
Now that may not be the same as demanding the break-up of the nation but does it not truly break the spirit of the nation?