CAA: From British to BJP rule, what remains a constant? ‘Obnoxious’ sedition charges
Surely, the colonial era sedition law is getting a boost at a time when “us versus them”, the “national versus anti-national” dichotomy is only becoming more and more rigid amidst CAA protests.
Whether it was British rule or the present day democratic system of governance, the draconian ‘sedition law’ remains a preferred weapon in the hands of the authorities to demolish dissent in the country.
In the wake of the raging agitation against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), the police have again resorted to the time tested method to stem the tide of growing protest in several states, even as the Supreme Court is yet to judge the constitutionality of the government move.
On Wednesday, January 22, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath warned anti-CAA protesters, saying slogans of “azadi” will be regarded sedition under the archaic law.
“Seditious” Azadi chants—which have become a rallying cry for denouncing the divisive and discriminatory law, Hindutva ideology and the Modi government in the ongoing demonstrations—were originally popularised in India by renowned feminist Kamla Bhasin. She claims to have picked up the slogan from Pakistani feminists and improvised it to resist patriarchy and injustice against women.
However, CM Yogi just like many others believes that the “secessionist” chant has had its origin in Kashmir, where it is used against the Indian State.
In 2016, a sedition case was filed against Kanhaiya Kumar, former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union after an allegedly doctored video showing unknown protesters chanting “azadi” slogans on the varsity campus had gone viral. In fact, a journalist working with the Zee News, Vishwadeepak, had resigned from the organisation, claiming that the channel deliberately misinterpreted a video clip to brand the students as anti-nationals.
This time again, many BJP leaders have been sharing unverified videos on social media to label anti-CAA protests as “anti-national” and “seditious”. TV news channels that tow the government line have been reporting the same without vouching for the authenticity of poor quality video clips.
Drafted by Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, “sedition” was inserted in the Indian Penal Code in 1870 as Section 124-A. It was first used against freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1897, and then Mahatma Gandhi for writing articles against the oppressive British rule. Subsequently, it was used on other freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh.
“Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law,” Gandhi had said while on trial in a sedition case. “If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite to violence.”
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951 had described sedition law as “highly objectionable and obnoxious”. While the UK itself repealed sedition as a crime in 2010 to strengthen the right to freedom of expression, the colonial-era law remains deeply entrenched in the Indian legal system. According to Section 124 A, 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 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.
The Supreme Court in the Kedar Nath Singh judgment in 1962 had limited its application to action or speech that clearly and imminently provokes violence. But there has been no let-up in the arbitrary use of sedition law for silencing government critics over the decades.
Ominously, the number of sedition cases registered across India against protesters, activists and artists doubled from 25 in 2016 to 70 in 2018, according to the National Crime Records Bureau’s data. On the other side, the year 2018 saw the least conviction rate at 15.4 percent compared to 16.7 percent in 2016 and 33.3 percent in 2017.
On January 9 last year, the Assam Police booked an 80-year-old scholar Hiren Gohain for allegedly saying there would be demands for sovereignty if the BJP-led NDA government forcibly pushed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB).
Similarly, earlier this month, the Dhanbad Police of Jharkhand registered a case against more than 3,000 people under various sections of the IPC including section 124-A for participating in anti-CAA-NRC protests. However, after the intervention of CM Hemant Soren the sedition charges were dropped.
Recently, Mysuru Advocates’ Association adopted a resolution against representing the accused in the sedition case in Karnataka.
Nevertheless, many jurists have been demanding that the controversial law be amended or abolished. Justice Deepak Gupta of the Supreme Court during a public lecture in September last year had stressed that “the law of sedition needs to be toned down, if not abolished.”
“In case we attempt to stifle criticism of the institutions, whether it be the legislature, the executive or the judiciary or other bodies of the State, we shall become a police state instead of a democracy and this the founding fathers never expected this country to be,” he had said.
Similarly, Justice (retired) Madan B Lokur in January last year had maintained that the IPC which defined criminal defamation as an offence should be abolished whereas Section 124-A needs to be reviewed.
In 2018, the Law Commission in a consultation paper had asserted that criticism of the government can’t be treated as sedition. It stated, “Every irresponsible exercise of right to free speech and expression can’t be termed seditious. For merely expressing a thought that is not in consonance with the policy of the Government of the day, a person should not be charged under the section”.
“Berating the country or a particular aspect of it, cannot and should not be treated as sedition. If the country is not open to positive criticism, there lies little difference between the pre- and post-independence eras. Right to criticise one’s own history and the right to offend are rights protected under free speech,” it noted.
In February last year, senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram had called for scrapping the sedition law following the BJP-led Tripura government’s order to file charges of sedition against those protesting the CAB.
Before the Hemant Soren government in its first cabinet decision dropped all cases registered against people during the Pathalgadi movement in 2017-2018, Congress’s Rahul Gandhi had slammed “sedition” law, asserting that the abuse of law should have shocked the national conscience, triggering a media storm.
But when Congress was in power, the UPA government would also sing from the same law book. In 2012 and 2013 alone, as many as 23,000 men and women who protested against a nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu were held for “waging war against the State” and sedition.
Oddly, in recent years people representing almost all hues of political beliefs have been stung by the sedition law. From Hindutva leader Pravin Togadia to Tamil folk singer S Kovan, rights activist Dr Binayak Sen, author Arundhati Roy, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, Congress leader Hardik Patel, late BJP stalwart Arun Jaitely and 83-year-old priest and rights activist Stan Swamy, all of them find themselves on the same page.
Justice Gupta in his lecture had thus lamented the paradox of sedition law: “There is no healthy discussion; there is no advocacy on principles and issues. There are only shouting and slanging matches. Unfortunately, the common refrain is either you agree with me or you are my enemy, or worse, an enemy of the nation, an anti-nationalist.”
During 2019 Lok Sabha elections, while the Congress had promised to repeal the sedition law if voted to power, the ruling BJP had announced that it would make the law even more stringent. Surely, the sedition law is getting a boost at a time when “us versus them”, the “national versus anti-national” dichotomy is only becoming more and more rigid amidst CAA protests.