Throughout history, rulers across the world have faced a fundamental problem. Their citizens do not love them enough. The sedition law is a powerful tool against this menace. Most recently, it was used against a gentleman from Kerala, who faces the possibility of life imprisonment for not standing up during the national anthem. The police are currently investigating his disloyalty.

The British like ruling people, so they were the first to think of this law, in 1648. Early offenders had their ears cut off, but, as society evolved, this was modified to life imprisonment. This law was the backbone of the British Empire. As the empire dwindled, so did its use. The last time people were charged with sedition in the United Kingdom was in 1972. Predictably, they were Irish. After this, a process was started to repeal it. Once the British were absolutely sure there was no further chance of empire, they did so, in 2010.

Most Commonwealth countries no longer use this law, except in the specific case of kidnapping or assaulting the queen. Malaysia is a notable exception. There the government arrests people for sedition quite often. The United Nations Humans Right Commission has protested. In reply, the Malaysian foreign minister has said that "the mould of Malaysia is different". The United States has a very active sedition law. People are picked up for it frequently, making America the land of the brave and the somewhat free.

A question of loyalty

How loyal have we been in India? Until 1857 things were fine. In 1857, there was a lot of disloyalty. As a result, the period between 1860 and 1870 witnessed hectic activity on the legal front. The Indian Penal Code was put together in 1861. It was designed to ensure the suppression of natives. But the British felt that something was missing. Hence, in 1870, they introduced Section 124A.

Section 124A, popularly known as the sedition law, makes it a crime to "promote, through word or deed, disaffection against the government". This law legislates affection. It means that if you do not love the government, you could go to jail. In the nineteenth century, the British made a lot of rules about love, because Queen Victoria was against it. For example, Section 377 tells you where you can or cannot put your penis. It regulates this activity, not in public, where children could be watching, but in the privacy of your own home. It enables policemen to pick you up, at any time of day and night, and ask you about your sex life. Sometimes they take pictures.

Initially, Section 124A was used against newspapers who were not loving the government sufficiently. Subsequently it was used against Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mohanlal Gandhi. Tilak was found guilty in 1916, despite a strong defense by Mohammad Ali Jinnah. During the trial, Jinnah asked a question which has puzzled many. What is this "disaffection", he asked. "Absence of affection," the judge said promptly. Gandhi was arrested a few years later. His opinion on sedition was very clear. He called it "the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen".

What happened after we gained freedom? Since Gandhi had such a high opinion of it, we decided to keep Section 124A, along with the rest of the Indian Penal Code. Soon after, the Indian Penal Code faced a strong challenge from a new document called the Constitution. As early as 1949, judges across the nation had started hampering the government, using Fundamental Rights as an excuse. At which point, enter Jawaharlal Nehru, stage left.

Magazine bans

Jawaharlal Nehru was the architect of modern India. Yet there were many who did not love him enough. One of them was a left-wing magazine called Cross Roads, which was banned for criticising him. The Madras High Court overturned this. It ruled that the rights given to citizens through article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution could only be suspended when there was a clear danger to security. One of these rights was the freedom of speech. Soon after, an attempt to censor the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh mouthpiece, The Organiser, was also overturned. In both these cases, the courts took the revolutionary view that loving the government was not compulsory.

This left Nehru in an awkward position. He wanted to suppress left-wing opinion. The judges said no. He wanted to suppress right wing opinion, the judges said no. It was as if he was not allowed to suppress anything. "Where is the love?" he demanded of the bureaucrats, "And why are we not enforcing it?" "What can we do?" said the babus, "The Constitution is blocking the governance." Nehru then repaired the Constitution, in 1951, through the First Amendment. Post this amendment; the Constitution continues to guarantee every citizen a wide variety of fundamental rights, unless the government thinks that "public order" is in jeopardy. It does not specify what "public order" is, or how it can be jeopardised. Constables and magistrates decide this, with the help of local bigwigs.

Despite this clear guideline, judges have continued to create difficulties. In the 1950s, the Punjab and the Allahabad High courts ruled that Section 124A was rendered void by the Constitution. Luckily, the Supreme Court stepped in. In 1962, in the Kedar Nath Case, it upheld Section 124A. But it also diluted it. It ruled that it could be applied only in cases where "incitement to violence’"was involved. This was a big setback for love.

Upholding tradition

Fortunately, our lower courts and local officials have not been misled. They have chosen to stick to old traditions. It also helps that most of our legal system is yet to discover computers. As a result, messages take time to reach the grassroots. Constables and magistrates have continued to fight for love. People have been picked up for a wide variety of crimes, including singing, reciting poetry, cheering for the Pakistan cricket team, not standing up for the national anthem, possessing paint brushes, and resembling a Maoist. It’s true that the accused are always freed once they reach the Supreme Court. But by that time, they are much, much older. Knowing this, most citizens continue to love their government, as per the law.

Unfortunately, the march of progress cannot be stopped, although this is no excuse for not trying. The government has recently announced that they will be repealing many old laws, including the Oudh Taluqdars Relief Act, 1870, and the Indian Treasure Trove Act, 1878. Does this mean that the sedition law is in peril? Prime Minister Modi is a cause for concern. Currently, he is feeling a lot of love. As a result, he may not see the need to enforce it legally. Therein lies the danger.

On the other hand, if the government respects our traditions, and retains the sedition law, we can heave a sigh of relief, knowing that love of government, an idea essential to stable governance, will remain enshrined in our hearts forever.