Civil society succeeds in blocking a spurious case - GulfToday

Civil society succeeds in blocking a spurious case

BRP Bhaskar


Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

Protest against lynching

The photo has been used for illustrative purposes.

While drawing up the Indian Penal Code in the 19th century, the British incorporated in it a section to deal with sedition, on the lines of a provision in the English law of the time.

Both laws were enacted to deal with disaffection towards the state. However, there was a vital difference between the two. One aimed at safeguarding the government of the land and the monarchy, while the other sought to secure a colonial state established by force of arms.

An early victim of the Indian law was Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who declared Swaraj (self-rule) was one’s birthright. Between 1897 and 1916 he was tried and convicted of sedition thrice. Gandhi was convicted under this law in 1922.

More than seven decades after Independence the colonial law continues to haunt those who dissent and question authority. There was a demand to scrap the law but Jawaharlal Nehru’s government retained it in view of the post-Partition situation.  Nehru, however, said the sooner we got rid of it the better.

The Constituent Assembly rejected attempts to make sedition a ground for restricting free speech. The Modi government told Parliament recently that the law was needed to combat anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements and there was no proposal to scrap it.

Originally, only inciting disaffection towards the government came under the definition of sedition. Amendments made before and after Independence brought attempts to generate hatred and contempt against the government also within the law’s ambit.

The maximum punishment awarded to Tilak and Gandhi was six years in jail. Now the maximum punishment is life sentence, with a fine.

Britain abolished the law 10 years ago, saying “sedition and seditious and defamatory libel are arcane offences from a bygone era when freedom of expression wasn’t seen as the right it is today”.

In India, the Supreme Court, through several judgments, limited the scope of the law. Now only acts involving tendency to create disorder attract sedition charge. Strong or vigorous criticism of the government does not come under the term ‘sedition’

But the law continues to be misused. Recently, a Bihar magistrate, ignoring the limits set by the apex court, ordered the police to register a first information report and investigate a complaint against 49 celebrities who had allegedly committed sedition and various other offences by writing an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on lynching of Muslims, Dalits and others.

Accordingly, the police filed an FIR which named the 49 who included filmmakers Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Mani Ratnaam, actor Soumitra Chatterjee, vocalist Shubha Mudgal and historian Ramachandra Guha.

In the letter they had said there was no democracy without dissent and called for an immediate end to lynching. The complaint against the 49 was the work of a lawyer who has filed several hundred cases against well-known politicians and film stars over the last decade.

The court directive on his complaint touched off a wave of protests and a fresh public debate on the law of sedition. In a statement, 185 literary and cultural personalities said they endorsed the open letter which had provoked legal action.

The 49 had only performed their duty as respectable members of civil society, they said. “Can this be called an act of sedition? Or is it harassment by misusing the courts, a ploy to silence citizens’ voices?”

The signatories included historian Romila Thapar, writers Nayantara Sahgal, Shashi Deshpande and Ashok Vajpaeyi, actor Naseeruddin Shah, dancer Mallika Sarabhai, vocalist TM Krishna and artist Vivan Sundaram.

Former Delhi High Court Chief Justice and former Law Commission Chairman AP Shah described filing of FIR against the 49 as shocking, disappointing and in complete disregard of the meaning of the law. “The threat of sedition leads to self-censorship and has a chilling effect on free speech,” he said, adding, “Arguably it is time for civil society to challenge the law directly.”

Social media took up the cause enthusiastically. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party said it had nothing to do with the complaint. That was true but the lynchings were a result of the hatred spewed by its Hindutva ideology.  

The Bihar police retrieved the situation for the ruling dispensation by declaring it had found the case to be false.  It also said it would initiate action against the lawyer for filing a false complaint.

Clearly India is at the crossroads of democracy and dictatorship. The lesson of the spurious sedition case is that civil society, though small and under attack from the government, still has the ability to beat back dark forces through focused protest action.

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