Sedition is a colonial-era law that refers to words or actions that urge people to act against the Monarch or the Government. But is it democratic, or just a toxic ghost of our past that we can’t let go of?
In February, 2016, JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar was charged with sedition. Shortly after, in September the same year, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) files a sedition complaint against Amnesty International India for conducting an event highlighting the gross human right violations in Kashmir. in January, 2020, Sharjeel Imam, a scholar at JNU was charged with sedition, and so was Najbunissa, a single mother whose 11-year-old her daughter participated in an anti-CAA play in Bidar, Karnataka.
Of the many heirlooms that the Colonial Era bestowed upon us, the sedition law was probably the most undesirable one. For centuries, sedition has served as nothing but an instrument at the disposition of the State to suppress someone’s reality. And it most definitely does not have any place in a modern-day democracy.
Let’s begin with having a brief look into how sedition came into being in India. The idea of sedition dates back to the 13th century when rulers in England viewed the printing press as a threat to their sovereignty. The widespread use of the printing press to question the sovereignty of the monarchs rattled the ruling class. It prompted a series of clampdowns on the press and the dissemination of information in the latter half of the century. And thus was introduced the concept of treason, and sedition — any person who would speak ill of the Crown, even if they were pointing out injustice, would be charged with sedition.
In the context of the Mughals, the term Bagawat was commonly used to refer to a rebellion or insurrection which challenged the legitimacy of the ruler. It was considered a grave crime that imposed a graver punishment.
During the Colonial era in India, the British Crown was on shaky grounds — their legitimacy as sovereign rulers was constantly being questioned by natives. Revolts were springing up in many pockets of Bengal and Madras. Simple intimidation and violent physical oppression did not seem to be working anymore. So the Crown feared something had to be done.
By the 18th century, the crime of seditious libel was viewed as a harsh and unjust law in England, commonly used to erase the protests of the peasants and trample any criticism of the Crown. However, given its utility, it was seen as a convenient tool in the hands of the rulers. Thus, when a penal code was being drafted for colonial India, where the rulers had the task of suppressing dissent, it was only obvious that seditious libel would be brought into the territory of India. Subsequently, section 124A, which deals with sedition, was drafted by Thomas Babington Macaulay and included in the Indian Penal Code in 1870.
Since then, the law of sedition was applied against great nationalists, such as Annie Besant, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi who had an impeccable ability to mobilise the masses against British imperialism. Keeping the undemocratic nature of sedition laws in mind, the Freedom of Speech and Expression was encompassed in our Constitution and “sedition” was deliberately left out by the framers. Yet, several clauses have been added over time to this fundamental right such that it no longer provides the protection it promised.
Democracies are literally borne of the actions of those who were considered seditious under Fascist and Imperialist regimes. They are built on the foundation that there is space for every opinion, concern and call for dissent. In an electoral democracy like India, how can sedition still be relevant?
One argument could be: “In a democracy, the Government is constituted by the people’s elected representatives — it is the popular voice, unlike the Colonial Era. So, anyone who is expressing disaffection against the Government is against the popular voice”.
The most important counter to that argument is this: Democracies do not begin or end with elections. If an individual has been part of a duly, constitutionally followed election process, they also have every right to raise questions about the legitimacy of the electoral process, the human right violations against certain communities and the appropriation of funds. Mobilising the masses against the discriminatory policies of the Government is not “seditious”, it means that you are simply a concerned citizen with a conscience.
The Government at the Centre is inclusive of the Opposition in the Parliament where every member represents their constituency, and the Leader of the Opposition sits in the Cabinet and represents every voice that dissents. If dissent is so integral to democracy, how can an opinion be considered invalid? How can someone’s reality in India be anti-India?
“We are holding on to repressive laws and legal architecture that were not framed in the context of a democracy. The Government should run by acknowledging dissent, and dialogue between the Government and the Opposition, within and outside the Parliament. Our democracy is our Constitution. The Constitution legitimises the Opposition and the right to protest peacefully. So, by undermining Opposition, the concept of sedition delegitimises an electoral democracy,” says Pankaj Jha, historian and professor at Lady Shri Ram College for Women.
Data from the National Crime Bureau reveals as many as 332 people were arrested under the sedition law between 2016 and 2018, though only seven were convicted, suggesting that police have struggled to gather evidence against the accused. In 2018, the 21st Law Commission of India issued a consultation paper asking for views on revoking sedition as an offence. However, the commission’s term ended before it could deliver its recommendations. While any recommendation would have likely been ignored, it would have been a first step in the right direction.
When Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) MP Banda Prakash asked in the Parliament if the Government planned to scrap sedition law “which is a colonial-era law applicable on free citizens of the Republic”, current Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai was clear in his response:
“There is no proposal to scrap sedition. There is a need to retain the provision to effectively combat anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements.”
It is evident that at this point, ruling parties find it easier to label someone seditious than acknowledging problems that confront real people. If someone tells you they don’t like something about what you’re doing, should your reaction be to arrest them or to hear them out and work on it? This neglect and aggression on the part of the Government make it very clear that they have no intention to reform or even acknowledge the horrors of power structures that suit them so well.
I leave you with one last thought:
“If mobilisation of the masses is sedition, then sedition is indispensable to modern democracy — if we may still call ourselves one.”
Originally published at DUbeat.