By Arun Ag:
August 15, 1947 marked our independence from British colonial rule, but are we free from their laws? The recent developments in Jawaharlal Nehru University raise that question again. The outdated sedition law has again turned up as one of the biggest threat to the democratic space for dissent in our nation. Our governments, to curb the ‘Freedom of Speech’ of Indian citizens, have retained the 19th-century colonial law. This draconian law has been used quite frequently in post-Independence India. The recent attacks on Kanaihya Kumar at Patiala House Court indicate that we’re living in our own Dark Age.
Freedom of speech is one of the basic fundamental rights of each Indian citizen. This means that it is a right of the citizen to agree or disagree within the nation. The continuous usage of the sedition law shows that our governments are intolerant towards disagreements. In this case, the law was used to suppress the dissenting voice of the students of our universities.
Sedition law was not part of the Indian Penal Code until 1870. Section 124-A was adopted that year. This section defines sedition like this:
1) whoever by words either spoken or written or by signs or by visible representation or otherwise brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, the government established by law
2) whoever by the above means excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law, has committed the offence of sedition.
According to the section 124-A the word “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity. “Comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the Government,” however, are exempt from being treated as an offence. The punishment is either imprisonment for life or imprisonment for three years with or without a fine in each case. The sedition law was used against Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Annie Besant and even Gandhiji during Freedom Struggle. By carrying it forward to post-Independence India, the law has been used against various personalities like Arundathi Roy, Dr. Binayak Sen, and the environmental activist Piyush Sethia. These instances tell us how outdated and meaningless this law is. Although, Hardik Patel (leader of Patel agitation) was also charged under this same act!
When the first amendment was introduced, which also included detailed limitations on free speech, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was categorical in his assertion that the offence of sedition was fundamentally unconstitutional. He had said, “now so far as I am concerned [Section 124-A] is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons, if you like, in any body of laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better.” According to the Supreme Court verdict in the famous Kedarnath case, sedition can’t be used in case of speeches expressing disagreement or opinions against the government unless it excites terror and violent attacks. This statement says that every citizen has the right to express their opinions (even if it is ‘anti-national’) without any fear unless it excites violence.
But what really happens is that 124-A is widely used as a weapon of oppression against all voices raised against the government. The flexibility of this law is one of the added advantages for the government. Most of the accused are humiliated and forced to fight long-drawn-out court battles to escape these charges simply because they expressed the ‘anti-government’ opinions.
The repeated use of sedition laws has made this law one of the biggest threats to the freedom of speech and expression in this country. Along with other colonial laws such as laws dealing with obscenity, and blasphemy laws, the law of sedition undermines the right to free expression and the right to criticise. It is time that we followed the lead of modern constitutional democracies such as the United Kingdom and New Zealand and seriously re-examined the need for these undemocratic laws in the world’s largest democracy. Even our Hon. President made similar comments recently. It is high time that the legislatures revised the Indian Penal Code and upheld our democratic values.
I end this article with a famous quote of Voltaire: “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.”