By Kasturi Saikia and Bidisha Chetia:
“With great power, comes great responsibility.” The quote has been attributed to many – from Voltaire to Uncle Ben in ‘Spider-Man’. Simply put, it tries to put forward the idea that when one acquires great power, he/she needs to transform himself into a responsible person and understand the importance of his thoughts and actions, so that his/her great powers are put to good use and are not liable to be used for ‘bad’.
However, history forces us to contemplate if great responsibility inherently follows great power?
In the last few days, we have come across incidents where people in important positions – offices with the power to impact the society at large – have gone against this idea and have made matters worse for everyone, including themselves. One might be surprised by the irresponsible way of handling matters pertaining to the events seen unfolding in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi resulting in slapping of the charge of sedition, under Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, on some of its students.
Section 124-A of IPC reads as : 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, 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.
Sedition is a word whose existence in the Indian Penal Code has been found objectionable by a lot of people. A significant lot vehemently oppose it, and yet, a handful of others will still support it to death, mostly for their own convenience. Be it television, comprising of anchors screaming in high decibels, or the print media printing the word in bold, everyone seems to be having quite a time with this word.
But what does Sedition mean?
For us students of the sciences, we have dealt with the likes of Rutherford and Mendeleev, Newton and Darwin. But we have never had the good fortune of coming across sedition and the various other sections of Indian Penal Code. So here, we make an attempt to break this word down.
The meaning of sedition has been quite vaguely explained even after multiple amendments to its definition. And obviously, the arbitrariness of it gives more power to the despotic rulers to use the law in their own way against whoever they want to. The law of sedition dates back to the 1860s, when Thomas Babington Macaulay drafted the Indian Penal Code for the first time. After the partition of British India, it was inherited by its successor states, India and Pakistan. An argument could be made that various sections of the IPC are in contradiction with the Constitution of India, considering that the latter had been drafted for an independent India, where the idea of a democratic republic reinforces the virtues of Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, whereas the former is an inheritance of our colonial past.
Even at the time of India’s struggle for independence and during the making of the Indian Constitution, the likes of great visionaries such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were against the law of sedition dismissing it as “obnoxious” and “impractical.” Gandhi himself was a victim of this law during the struggle for the freedom of India. He eloquently criticised the law in the following words:
“Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by the law. If one has no affection for a person, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence.”
He went on to describe the law as “the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal code designed to suppress liberty of the citizens.”
Once, during our school days, we had to write an essay on ‘unity in diversity’ in the context of our country India. Proudly, we listed down the various languages, religions and ethnic backgrounds of the people of the country. The dance forms, the languages and the traditional garb of the people of India and the significance attached to each and every one of these ‘diversities’ was included. In spite of that, we argued, the national anthem still managed to invoke a deep sense of pride in all of us which was what kept the sense of unity thriving among all these diverse groups.
As we grew up, we began to comprehend the intricacies in our definitions of ‘unity’ and ‘diversity’. We began to understand that each region of the country had a different history attached to it. There was an explanation as to why they were the way they are. It made us appreciate the complicacies attached to the different issues faced by all the communities and regions of the country. And despite these differences, they still feel a sense of belonging to the country called India.
But the people of India today are inquisitive, vibrant and curious. They have realised the limitations of ‘rote learning’ and want to form ideas of their own. This, of course, will bring along with it a series of questions thus challenging the accepted truths and established practices which may be a little discomforting for the unthinking conformists but isn’t that, after all, a sign of progress and a part of the evolution of ‘learning’?
The advancement of technology in the era of globalisation has brought an awareness of multiculturalism among people because of which they can analyse a situation today in a more critical manner, thus raising important and fundamental questions while also challenging stereotypes and prejudices. The young mind no longer look at an issue from a single perspective but from a spectrum of them. The younger lot is seeking sensible answers. And this is exactly where the older (and supposedly, the wiser) lot, which holds the seat of power at the centre, the Government, that is, falters.
After independence, there was a realisation to look at the law of sedition closely, lest it be against the freedom of one’s expression or speech. Some may argue that there has to be a limit to what a person can say or cannot say. True, in fact, everyone should exercise the right amount of control over which words flow out of their mouth. And when it comes to questioning your country and its rulers, there lies a very thin line of difference between dissent and treason. But unless we have a proper understanding of the meaning of both the terms and what they stand for, it would be highly inappropriate to term anything as ‘sedition’ and slap charges against the common man in the name of the law. Political dissent may sometimes go to the extent of using violence. And that is exactly when laws such as sedition are required to come into play.
However, we must not forget that peaceful dissent on the other hand, is the mark of a free society which is inevitable for a nation state to grow. It is worth noting here that the country which gave us this law of sedition – the United Kingdom – has itself done away with this law citing the reason that even the occasional use of this law may have a negative impact on the freedom of speech of a citizen.
The government often resorts to force and takes the easy way out to maintain what is known as ‘public order’. But they should be able to face the perpetrators head on. For that, they should be able to identify a real perpetrator. They should be able to differentiate between a ‘misdemeanour’ and a ‘heinous crime’. This calls for an importatnt role that needs to be played by the other state organs such as the judiciary. A horizontal set of checks and balances is the need of the hour, lest the executive become nothing but a despotic branch. It is the constitutional duty of the government to strike a balance between the security of the state and the rights of individuals without having to compromise one for the other.
It is time we come out of the narrow closet of ideas of ‘nationalism’ and ‘Indian Culture’, and prevent ourselves from putting the larger goals such as upholding the principles of democracy at stake. For it will be a dangerous delusion if we continue to believe that the use or rather, the abuse of a law as arbitrary as Section 124-A of IPC cannot drive the people of the nation into a revolution and a dreadful retaliation against the state. Today, in this context, let us remember the constitution makers of our country who painstakingly made the longest written constitution in the world, leaving it to their successors to redesign the document with a changing world.