Invoking the law on sedition lightly

Sedition law should be rarely, if ever, invoked in a democratic country. Though there are those who question its very presence in the Indian Penal Code, Parliament and the judiciary in their wisdom have retained it, much to the chagrin of the human rights activists. For, democratic freedoms, including the right to free speech and dissent, sits ill with this hangover from the colonial power. The British who enacted the law in order to deal with troublesome freedom fighters have themselves omitted it from their penal code. Not only have we chosen to retain it despite demands from activists and others for its deletion, but, what is worse, we have regularly slapped sedition charges against those who express sharply different opinions inconvenient to the incumbent regimes.

The latest case in point is the slapping of sedition charges against a prominent public intellectual of Assam, Hiren Gohain, along with a few others. Gohain is said to have given a call for breaking free from India while protesting against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill which seeks to grant the persecuted non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan citizenship rights. The ethnic Assamese population is against the Bill for it fears that the State would be swamped by Hindu Bengalis and, as a result, they would further lose demographic dominance in their own home state. The FIR against Gohain under Section 124A accuses him and others of addressing a rally where, it is claimed, a call for independence was given.

Gohain, who has obtained interim bail against arrest, claims that he, in fact, tried to stop the hotheads in the audience consisting mainly of students and other young people from expressing anti-India sentiments. In any case, it is pointless to accuse him of entering into a conspiracy to ‘wage war against the state.’ Legitimate protest being his and every citizen’s fundamental right, the state should not be so reckless in invoking Section 124A as it has over the years. Maybe the reason why it does so is that it intends to frighten/pressure individuals into surrendering their right to freedom of expression. Both the UPA and the NDA governments have been guilty of the abuse of the sedition law, a law which should no longer be part of the IPC.

Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, an anti-nuclear plant protester at Kudankulam, etc, among others, were all charged with sedition earlier. Meanwhile, three years after they allegedly raised anti-India slogans, former JNU Students’Union president Kanhaiya Kumar and nine others were charged with sedition by the Delhi Police on Monday. Kumar, a CPI activist, the charge-sheet says, led a crowd of students on February 2016 to protest the hanging of the Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, where anti-India slogans were raised. Calls for azaadi were heard from the podium, particularly from Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, both figuring among the ten charged under Section 124 A.

Meanwhile, Kumar and others who were charged with sedition have called it a political move, taken with an eye on the coming parliamentary poll. The timing of the charge-sheet does suggest that it could be exploited by the ruling party to bolster its narrative of nationalism against anti-India elements out to destabilize the country. Yet, we fail to find merit in the sedition charge, even if some youthful speakers like Umar Khalid were carried away and shouted slogans seeking azaadi from India. Verbal excesses of youth do not call for a ham-handed slapping of sedition charges. Incitement of violence against the government and/or creating disaffection and disorder against the State are grave charges and should not be lightly slapped against those who protest against the inequities and injustices of the authorities against the people.

Free expression of protest, nay, even anger, without it degenerating into violence, is part of the democratic arsenal of all citizens. Even a Law Commission report had taken a dim view of the continuing existence of the sedition provision in the IPC. The sooner it is deleted the better it will be for the further flowering of the democratic freedoms of the people. Indeed, sedition is a lazy way of holding accountable those citizens who in the eyes of the law enforcing agencies seemed to have overstepped the limits on the exercise of fundamental freedoms. All the sedition cases mentioned above could have been better dealt without invoking Section 124 A which prescribes a prison term of three to five years for the convicted.

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