An anachronistic law
The police in Bengaluru have registered an FIR, under Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, against Amnesty International India, highlighting once again the anachronism of the sedition law and its potential as a tool for harassment. Amnesty India had organised a function as part of its campaign to seek justice for “victims of human rights violations” in Jammu and Kashmir, an event that ended in heated arguments and pro-azadi sloganeering. The FIR was lodged on the basis of a complaint by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student body affiliated to the RSS. Although the Karnataka Home Minister has clarified that the police would proceed against the rights group only if “evidence is found to substantiate the claims made”, the incident draws attention to the danger in retaining a law that should have no place in our statute books, one that Jawaharal Nehru himself had described as “highly objectionable and obnoxious”, back in 1951. Although the courts have repeatedly held that the operation of Section 124-A is limited to cases where what is spoken incites violence and public disorder, the limitations of the section have rarely stopped prosecuting authorities from using it as a tool to stifle dissent and criticism.
Unfortunately, a focus on the use of the sedition law by both public intellectuals and the media has been largely limited to high-profile cases such as those involving JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar (for supposedly raising anti-national slogans), Tamil folk singer Kovan (for criticising the government’s liquor policy), Hardik Patel (for rallying Patidars to demand reservation) and Aseem Trivedi (for anti-corruption cartoons). But it is important to also keep sight of the countless cases that do not receive individual attention and which expose the full extent of the misapplication of the sedition law. Most sedition cases do not result in trials, leave alone convictions, but it is a sobering thought that as many as 58 people were arrested in 2014 under Article 124-A — a vague and dangerously inexact provision that punishes those who by use of words, signs or visible representation “bring into hatred or contempt” or “excite disaffection” towards the government. That people continue to get charged with an offence added to the IPC a decade after its promulgation in 1860, to help a colonial government hold sway over its subjects, is a matter of shame. India failed to scrap the law in the first few years after Independence, after which it was upheld, albeit with caveats, by the Supreme Court in Kedarnath Singh v. State of Bihar in 1962. In the intervening years, countries including Britain have abolished their sedition laws. It’s time India joined their ranks.