The sedition law – legacy of a gory history

Today, we still use some of the British laws that “legalised lawlessness”, including the Sedition Act. More than a century later, that law is still used to curb dissent

Harini CalamurUpdated: Monday, August 01, 2022, 04:08 AM IST
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At the start of the 1900’s, Great Britain – a tiny island off the coast of Europe – ruled over a quarter of the world’s population and controlled more landmass than any other nation in history. The myths that have been perpetuated about the Empire include the civilisational impact it had on subject populations. In fact, the British Empire considered it as an almost ‘holy mission’ to civilise the natives of the world, the barbarous populations who needed to be pulled out of darkness into light. And this mission of western empires was supported by the foremost thinkers of that time.

John Stuart Mill, one of the leading lights of Classical Liberalism, called the rest of us barbarians, and said that that the rules that applied to them, did not apply to us. He famously wrote, “Nations which are still barbarous have not got beyond the period during which it is likely to be for their benefit that they should be conquered and held in subjection by foreigners. Independence and nationality, so essential to the due growth and development of a people further advanced in improvement, are generally impediments to theirs.” And then there was the famous poem by Rudyard Kipling that extolled the (white) American republic to take up the “white man’s burden” and conquer the Philippines to civilise them.

The narrative of colonialism is terrible. Millions of people enslaved. Millions of people wiped out due to genocide. Millions more dying due to hunger as agricultural land got converted to growing cash crops. And millions more displaced as the white man with his ignorance, apathy, and hubris began disregarding local tensions and histories and tried their social experiments. The history of colonisation is the history of extreme violence n native peoples, and there is little written about the systemic and systematic application of violence to rob peoples of their birth right.

Caroline Elkin’s Pulitzer wining book, “The Legacy of Violence: The History of the British Empire” is a gut-wrenching tale of violence that was legitimised to subdued native populations. The popular narrative around the British Empire talks about the violence happened before the empire, when rapacious companies were out to plunder. But Elkin’s book looks at how British Imperial interests unleashed brutal violence backed by law to get their way. Elkin’s first book, based around the British excesses in Kenya, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya, is not even about violence in the more brutal 1800s. It describes the gory and brutal tactics adopted by the Empire after the Second World War.

For many Indians, indeed citizens of other nations that faced colonialism and Imperialism, the stories of violence are not new. From slavery to concentration camps, from Gulags to bonded labour, from deportation to forced resettlement; from loss of identity to divide and rule – the last 200 years of the colonised people have been a litany of violence and degradation, which will take many generations to heal. But, for westerners, who live with their illusion of a benevolent empire, the book will be a revelation. Even for the subject nations, now free, the extent of systematic violence unleashed to keep people in check would be surprising.

Elkin’s book is a meticulous study of Imperialism, where violence was not incidental – a response to an event. Rather, it was an instrument of Imperial policy aimed at teaching the “natives” their place, as well as helping with the “civilising” process. She looks at the legal exceptionalism that was used by the British to make subjects heed their command. Elkin’s thesis is that the British used what she terms “legalised lawlessness” to reinforce their authority. And this meant a suspension of rights that they espoused in their nations, through a state of emergency or through the application of martial law. Decision-making was devolved to the men on the spot. And much of that authority was discretionary. When existing laws seemed unequal to the task of curtailing law and order, the Empire came up with new one. Elkin terms “this tautological process of law creation—of incrementally legalising, bureaucratising, and legitimating exceptional state-directed violence when ordinary laws proved insufficient for maintaining order and control” as “legalised lawlessness”.

In the second decade of the 21st century, the idea of Empire has not died. Boris Johnson called for Empire 2.0, and the British seem very comfortable with the idea. The Russians are flexing their muscles trying to rebuild the Russian Empire of yore. Vladimir Putin has compared himself with Peter the Great who was known for his expansionist tendencies. Closer home, the Chinese are rattling their sabres around Taiwan – claiming both territory and people.

Today, we still use some of the British laws that “legalised lawlessness”, including the Sedition Act. The Sedition Law was brought into play to curb the expression of those who opposed the Raj. Tilak was the first of those to be arrested for an editorial in the Kesari; more than a century later, that law is still used to curb dissent — the legacy of violence and repression left behind by the Empire.

The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty, and filmmaker. She tweets at @calamur

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