The registration of a sedition case against 49 prominent citizens for appealing to the Prime Minister in an open letter in July in a police station in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, is an act of sheer madness, of abuse of law, of application of law without recourse to even a moment’s reflection. If the idea of the nameless lawyer who filed the FIR in the first place was to seek notoriety, he has fully succeeded. But what is more shocking is that the police felt obliged to register the FIR only when a city magistrate ordered them to do so. We cannot think of a more egregious case of abuse of judicial power than this. Regardless of the public standing of the signatories, some of whom are indeed men of letters and enjoy a justifiable reputation in their respective fields of work, be it cinema, literature, etc., if the magistrate had cared to apply his mind for a split second he would have found hardly anything objectionable and offensive in the letter. In a democracy everyone is free to address his grievance to the prime minister or to a lesser authority regardless of whether the grievance is based on facts or merely expresses apprehensions based on a purely subjective reading of the current situation.
The letter-writers, it is widely known, are not at all well-disposed towards the party in power in general, and Prime Minister Modi in particular. They tend to see the demise of democracy even in minor events which neither directly nor indirectly have anything to do with the central government. Even the stray cases of love- jihad and lynchings in the cause of ‘gau mata’ involved autonomous individual action, though intellectuals still left the blame at the door of Modi for what they conveniently love to call ‘creating an atmosphere of hate and bigotry.’ For instance, given that open bias against the saffron party, it is unlikely that any of the above-mentioned intellectuals would care to issue a statement blaming the Congress Government in Rajasthan for the incident in Alwar last Saturday night. Two drunken youths, as per newspaper reports, attacked a man and tried to strip his wife when the former refused to chant ‘Ram-Ram’. The couple along with their child were having dinner when the drunken louts went after them. Such incidents are rare but nonetheless happen both in the Congress- and BJP- ruled States. But, unfortunately, the Congress leadership virtually seems to get a free pass from the same-very intellectuals who jump with rare alacrity only to excoriate Modi and his government and party, lending their names to a politically-motivated initiative actually initiated by activists from one or the other anti-BJP party. In short, the even-handedness of the intellectuals in viewing such and other incidents of communally-motivated violence would carry far more credibility. Regardless, the charge of sedition against the 49 eminent persons can only evoke an unalloyed outrage. How could a magistrate be party to such a blatant abuse of a British-era law which has long lived its utility, if any. It should no longer have sullied the statue book.
Former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, A P Shah, who unfailingly hankers after celebrity, expounding on various issues day in and day out, and was one of the 49 signatories, has rightly pointed out that no criminal offence is made out in the said letter. We fully endorse his assertion. But instead of selective outrage, letter writers need to guard against any display of political partisanship. Section 124A of the IPC was described by the first prime minister as “highly objectionable and obnoxious…the sooner we get rid of it the better…” But neither Nehru, nor his daughter Indira Gandhi, nor, for that matter, the latter’s son, Rajiv actually took the trouble to delete it－and yet all three, particularly Nehru, continue to be hailed as the embodiments of liberal values. So much then for the distorted discourse in the name of democratic rights and values! Of course criticism and dissent against the people in power is not sedition －no, not even a criminal act warranting punitive action under a lesser law. In fact, we would have been in trouble a zillion times for constantly publicly excoriating the government of the day, regardless of its political complexion. Freedom of speech is the foundational tenet of any democratic system. In sum, the higher judicial authorities need to discipline the said Bihar magistrate. Meanwhile, we also take a rather dim view of such lawyers who knowingly file such cases only with a view to garner publicity