Sedition has been defined as a ‘crime against the security of the state that refers to the uttering or writing of words intended to bring the sovereign state into hatred or contempt, to urge disaffection against the Constitution or democratically elected government, or the attempt to procure a change in government by unlawful means. In contemporary times, legal experts and civil rights activists are asserting more firmly than usual, that sedition law cannot simply be invoked to target citizens who express their views- good or bad, for or against the government. The sedition laws remain a matter of great contestation, both within legal and larger public circles. Seditious activity remains a controversial crime.
Critics of sedition law mostly seek to defend free speech by arguing that while every society has an interest in protecting itself and its institutions from violence, no society should criminalize speech that it finds offensive when such speech is far removed from the actual practice of violence. Though there is no formal distinction, there does lie a line between the expression of radical political opinions and actual criminal incitement. Critics of sedition argue that a stable democracy should be able to absorb even opposing or offensive ideas, and an environment for dialogue and discussion must be fostered.
In India, the sedition law was introduced in 1870 to arrest and convict revolutionary nationalists and anyone who spoke or wrote against the legitimacy of the colonial government. The most known figures who were tried under the sedition law were Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and Mahatma Gandhi. With each judicial interpretation and trial of an anti-colonial nationalist, the parameters of sedition law became wider. The colonial government in India used the weapons of surveillance and sedition to contain the growth of radical and revolutionary ideas and groups in the interest of protecting national security and the legitimacy of political rule.
One of the most famous trials in 20th century India was of Savarkar, who became a well-watched revolutionary nationalist when he was in England to study law. From early on, Savarkar’s speeches as part of a revolutionary society, ‘Mitra Mela’, in his hometown Nashik became a threat to the British state. Seditious words were thought to be spreading propaganda and recruiting new members into the movement, but were much harder to contain than the explicit threat of bombs and guns. Thus, the word itself became the evidence of a crime and the leaders of these so-called conspiracies had to be implicated by proving that the conspiracy lays in the particular use of words.
The Sedition law is till very much intact in our statute book even today. Section 124-A has reached faraway places as well and is not just restricted to urban areas. Adivasis of Jharkhand, resisting displacement, were slapped with sedition charges in 2014. Even though most of the cases do not end up in conviction, when the legal process itself becomes the punishment, the attempt to put sedition charges simply becomes an attempt to silence protesters into submission.
Presently, sedition and anti-national are the terms which one can frequently hear while listening to various news channels or within the university space itself. If you have a problem with anything the government does, you will be declared to be an anti-national, the basic ploy of using these terms interchangeably is to silence everyone to conformity.
Social media, news channels everything is under surveillance in our country at present. Everything we say, do or share that borders towards non-conformity or dissent will be viewed with suspicious eyes. The important factor here is that we as citizens of the world’s largest democracy should be able to express our views and opinions without fear of being slapped with sedition charges or being subjected to hate threats.
Finally, as the famous historian, Howard Zinn once said, “Dissent is the highest form of democracy”.