Arshad Shaikh examines how the sedition law in India, a relic of our colonial past, is prone to misuse by authoritarian governments.
The word sedition can be traced from its mid-14th century usage with the following etymology – from Old French sedicion, and directly from Latin seditionem (nominative seditio) “civil disorder, dissension, strife; rebellion, mutiny,” literally “a going apart, separation”. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) was enacted by the British in 1860. Chapter VI of the IPC talks about the “offences against the state”.
It consists of Sections 121 to 130. Section 124 of the IPC Chapter VI deals with “Assaulting President, Governor, etc., with intent to compel or restrain the exercise of any lawful power”. Section 124A states – “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”.
It is said that the British enacted this law with the specific intention to dispel any possibility of a repeat of the 1857 Mutiny through the Muslim ‘Ulema and Mashaikh’ (religious scholars). Our colonial masters used this law vigorously to suppress the great freedom fighters of India. Section 124A was made a cognizable offence in 1973 during the tenure of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It became possible to arrest people under sedition without a warrant. There is a long history of the misuse of this law to arrest people, whose voices had to be suppressed. Sedition law became a convenient legal tool to put down any political opposition and those critical of government policies.
JUDICIARY TO THE RESCUE
The redeeming feature in this sordid saga is that the Indian judiciary has repeatedly come to the rescue of democracy and protection of civil liberties. For example, in the Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar on 20 January, 1962, a bench of the Supreme Court of India ruled: “The section (124A) must be so construed as to limit its application to acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder, or disturbance of law and order; or incitement to violence”.
Similarly, the SC dismissed a PIL charging former CM of Jammu and Kashmir, Farooq Abdullah of sedition as he had made certain statements over Article 370. The apex court opined: “Expression of views which is dissent and different from the opinion of the government cannot be termed seditious.”
Even the CJI recently commented on Section 124A during the hearing of a case challenging its constitutional validity, saying – “Our concern is the misuse of the law and the lack of accountability. Why does it continue in the statute book after 75 years of our Independence? The situation on the ground is grave… If one party does not like what the other is saying, Section 124A is used. It is a serious threat to the functioning of individuals and parties. This is like if a police officer wants to fix anybody in a village for something, he can use Section 124A. People are scared”.
PRONE TO CONTINUED MISUSE
Despite repeated clarifications by the judiciary regarding the scope of Section 124A, successive governments have flouted its spirit and misused it unabashedly to quell expressions of dissent and jail those who try to mould public opinion against its policies. Hence, there is a glowing clamour for its outright removal.
Let us check some of the prominent sedition cases in recent times.
(1) Aseem Trivedi is a cartoonist. He displayed some of his cartoons during the ‘India Against Corruption’ movement by Anna Hazare in November 2011. The complainant, an NGO accused Aseem of hurting the sentiments of the nation, as the cartoons were derogatory in nature. They allegedly showed the Parliament as a commode and the national emblem with wolves instead of lions.
(2) In August 2016, the then Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar remarked, “Going to Pakistan is the same as going to hell.” Newly elected Congress MP, Divya Spandana who had just returned from Pakistan after attending the SAARC summit for young parliamentarians, promptly repudiated that statement saying, “Pakistan is a good country, not hell”. She was charged with sedition.
(3) Kanhaiya, Umar Khalid, Anirban and seven others were charged in a case of sedition for allegedly raising anti-India slogans at an event on the JNU Campus in February 2016. The event was organised to mark the hanging of Afzal Guru, who was convicted of being complicit in the attack on Parliament in December 2001.
(4) 19 years old Amulya Leona was arrested and charged under Section 124A for shouting “Pakistan Zindabad” slogans at an anti-CAA protest meet in Bengaluru. She got default bail, as the state did not file any chargesheet within the mandated 90-day period.
(5) Climate activist, Disha Ravi was charged by the Delhi Police for sedition. Her crime; she supported the farmers’ movement and distributed a ‘toolkit’ shared by Greta Thunberg on Twitter.
(6) 124A was invoked against filmmaker Aisha Sultana by the Lakshadweep administration as she had accused them in the course of an argument of unleashing a “bioweapon against the people by relaxing quarantine rules for those entering Lakshadweep”.
The above are some of the sedition cases that became high profile because of media coverage. It is very clear that in all the above cases, the law of sedition was misused and used to stifle dissent. The situation remains quite bleak at the macro-level. According to the legal research portal Article 14 – “96% of sedition cases filed against 405 Indians for criticizing politicians and governments over the last decade were registered after 2014, with 149 accused of making “critical” and/or “derogatory” remarks against PM Modi, 144 against UP CM Yogi Adityanath”.
Data shows that between 2014 and 2020, 7136 individuals were charged while 519 cases were registered under Section 124A. However, according to the news agency PTI, citing data from the Union ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), of the total 326 cases registered under sedition in the six-year period (2014-20), only six people were convicted (less than 2%).
THE ISLAMIC POSITION
Islam offers moral protection and values an individual’s opinion and right to dissent and criticise those in power. According to Musnad Aḥmad (18449), Tariq ibn Shihab reported: A man asked the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, “What is the best jihad?” The Prophet ﷺ said, “A word of truth in front of a tyrannical ruler.” There is another Hadith recorded in Sahih Bukhari (Kitab al Ahkam) and Sahih Muslim (Kitab al Imarah) in which Abdullah bin Umar narrates that the Prophet ﷺ said: “A Muslim must listen to those in authority and obey them whether he likes or dislikes their commands, as long as he is not asked to commit sin. But if he is asked to do sinful acts, he will neither listen nor obey.” Any law, which tries to snatch the “words of truth” from the lips of its citizens, should be done away with in a society that values freedom and justice.