The sedition law has been on the statute book since 1870. No attempt was made to delete it even when power passed to the democratically-elected leaders in free India. This perspective is important to remember when considering the current spate of cases being slapped under the controversial law by the BJP Governments in the States. The latest to be thrown behind the bars is the 19-year-old student, one Amulya Leona Noronha, who the other day shouted Pakistan Zindabad from a stage occupied by, among others, Asaduddin Owaisi. When she raised her fist in the air and shouted in a high-pitched voice Pakistan Zindabad at the anti-CAA rally in Bangalore, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen leader did get up to restrain her but a video of her soon went viral. The State Police lost no time in slapping sedition charges against her. Likewise, earlier they had booked under the same law a school principal in Bidar where the students had staged an anti-CAA play and apparently used unprintable words for Prime Minister Modi. A couple of more such cases have been reported from Karnataka. There is no doubt that the police have used the controversial law rather freely, especially since the BJP leader B S Yediyurappa returned as chief minister. In sharp contrast, the non-BJP governments have allowed considerable latitude to the anti-CAA protesters without feeling the need to book anyone under the dreaded law. Given that there is no bail available to those charged and a minimum of three years imprisonment is prescribed, which can go up to a life-time, the police find it easy to take resort to this law which does not define sedition in detail. Section 124 A of the IPC, which deals with sedition, states that ‘whoever with 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.” Disaffection against government is so vague that anything and everything said against it can be interpreted to mean sedition. We are of the firm opinion that when the police does not have a solid ground to try someone on provable charges of wrong-doing, it takes the easy way out by invoking Section 124A. Despite the courts periodically rebuking the authorities in the last seven decades for the misuse of the sedition law to silence dissent and differences against the regime of the day, this has not deterred the authorities from using it at the first available opportunity. Indian State is never so fragile that it cannot allow a chit of a girl make a fool of herself at a political rally against the Modi Government. Likewise, the school children in Bidar who supposedly staged an anti-CAA play did not have to be dragged into the sedition net insofar as their headmistress was thrown into prison on account of it. Little children were innocent what they were made to mouth to reflect the prejudices of their teachers and elders.
Besides, misuse of sedition law invariably acts as a double-edged weapon, though putting the victim to great personal hardship but simultaneously bestowing on him/her a halo of sacrifice and bravado. Some years ago, the Modi Sarkar unwittingly made the then little known JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar an overnight political celebrity by invoking sedition charges against him. The downside of this instant fame-hunting is that the family and friends of the victims of sedition law are most gratuitously made victims of vilification and even physical harm. For instance, right-wing activists are said to have roughed up Noronha’s father, threatening to ransack his house for the audacity of his daughter to shout Pakistan Zindabad. Whether it is her shouting Pakistan Zindabad or former Mumbai MLA and right-hand man of Owaisi in Maharashtra, Waris Pathan threatening at the same Bangalore rally to physically put down ‘100 crore Hindus if 15 crore Muslims get it into their heads to do so,’ the authorities need to weigh the pros and cons of invoking Section 124A very, very carefully. Often the objective is served better by treating the rants as, er, rants and letting the offender to run away with his wild tongue. By slapping sedition charges, the onus shifts from the alleged wrong-doer to the police. If sedition law cannot be deleted from the statute book, wisdom lies in its use only in the rarest of rare cases.