South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Certain laws of British era must go

The demand to scrap the sedition law is not new. Section 124A – sedition – was introduced in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) by British imperialists to silence the freedom fighters and enhance the might of colonial rule. Mahatma Gandhi and Lokmanya Tilak, among various other freedom fighters, were charged under the draconian sedition law. In 1929, Mahatma Gandhi wrote an editorial in Young India appealing countrywide agitation demanding the repeal of section 124A. He wrote that it constituted ‘rape of the word law.’

The 1870 law continue in independent India. The demand to remove sedition law has been growing over the years. The law is being used to curb public dissent and silence critics. The law is once again in the news because of the recent charge sheet filed by the Delhi police against former JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and eight others. Similarly, in Assam, the sedition charges are filed against Assamese scholar Hiren Gohain, peasant leader Akhil Gogoi and journalist Manjit Mahanta for criticising the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. They have obtained interim bail from the Gauhati High Court. The Assamese have expressed their solidarity with the Gohain and others by various actions. Gohain is also a Sahitya Akademi awardee.

The case against Kanhaiya Kumar and others relate to the alleged raising of ‘anti-national slogans’ at a programme held in JNU in February 2016. It took three years for police to submit the charge sheet in a ‘serious’ offence. Again, the charge sheet is filed barely three months before the scheduled general elections. Kanhaiya Kumar is expected to contest elections from Begusarai, Bihar. It also means that there is a political motive behind the charge sheet. The point is whether raising ‘objectionable’ slogans amount to sedition? The Supreme Court of India’s various rulings has clarified what amounts to sedition.

The British Empire blatantly used the sedition law to suppress the freedom struggle and arrest freedom fighters. Kanaiyalal Munshi, freedom fighter, author and educationist, was against retaining of sedition law in Independent India. He said, “The essence of democracy is criticism of the government.”

The Supreme Court in 1962 in Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar gave a landmark ruling saying that mere criticism of the government or comments on the administration, however vigorous or pungent or even ill-informed, cannot amount to sedition. In 1995, Supreme Court in the case of Balwant Singh vs State of Punjab ruled that casual raising of slogans, once or twice by two individuals alone, cannot be said to be aimed at exciting or an attempt to excite hatred or disaffection towards the government and hence, section 124A would not be attracted. The court noted that as from the prosecution evidence, it is clear that the slogans did not evoke any response from the people of the community and so the charge of sedition cannot be justified.

In Assam’s case, sedition charges were slapped only because they criticised the Citizenship Bill. The bill passed in the Lok Sabha has generated a major controversy especially in the North East of India. The Meghalaya government, of which BJP is a part, has passed a resolution criticising the bill. Some BJP lawmakers of Assam has also criticised the bill. Obviously, it is a matter of concern for the BJP leadership. On the same issue, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) withdrew from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

In JNU’s case, police took three years to file a charge sheet itself speaks volume. Nobody will defend anti-national slogans if it were raised by someone. The court will decide whether provocative slogans were given or not. But, the point is how the state should act or react in a liberal democracy especially with the students. The sedition law must go. There are enough laws in the statute book to act. The student community is always sensitive and they react to the issues confronting them and others. It is also necessary to see that respected intellectuals like Gohain and others should not be charged under sedition only because they criticised the Citizenship Bill. To criticise government policies is a fundamental right of every citizen.

Updated On: 19 January 2019