Patidar leader Hardik Patel might see himself as the next Vallabhbhai Patel, but unlike his hero, he is certainly no Gandhian. Hardik Patel has far-right religious views (“India is basically for Hindus,” he once said) and wants to scrap India’s affirmative action for backward castes and other backward classes, since he wants even more power for the traditionally landed and now largely mercantile caste he belongs to, the Patidars of Gujarat. His petulant agitation for an even larger share of the pie for his dominant caste is simply unfair and goes against any notion of social justice. He has also, alleges the Gujarat government, tried to stir up pubic disorder as part of his agitation to bring reservation quotas for the Patels.

In response, the state came down on Patel like a ton of bricks. It first started to tap his phone, showing just how easy it is for the state to intrude the privacy of an individual. Even more egregiously, in trying to clamp down on Patel’s politics, the state of Gujarat charged him with sedition.

Clamp down with sedition

Whatever one might think of Patel, to charge him with sedition is ridiculous, even surreal, in a democracy.

Section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code reads that a person can be charged with sedition if his speech “attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government”.

The sedition law was passed by the British Raj in an obvious bid to clamp down on free speech which endangered its colonial rule. In modern India, the law has been attenuated to some extent. From a near-absolute ban on free speech, which penalised even something as mild as spreading “contempt” against the government, the Supreme Court in 1962 ruled that only speech which incites violence against the government is liable to be prosecuted as seditious. This definition means that prosecutions for sedition in India are rare.

However, the extremely wide ambit of the law still means that it is often used by the police as an all-purpose tool whenever it wants to lock-up someone it doesn’t like. In Patel’s case, for example, as his legal defence argues, between the date of him making the allegedly seditious statement (October 3) and the filing of the first information report (October 18), no public disorder was reported. So the actual case for conviction is weak. However, by booking him under sedition, the police have been able to detain Patel for 45 days ­– a crucial period since Gujarat is conducting its municipal and panchayat polls during the period. Earlier, the Gujarat government had even tried to postpone the polls, given that the powerful Patel caste was expected to vote against it. However, this order was quashed by the Gujarat High Court on October 9.

The Swiss army knife of the Indian state

The sedition case against Patel, therefore, had little to do with any violence against the government but seems to have been slapped on for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s political benefit. Like all restrictions on free speech, India’s sedition law is simply being used as a tool for muzzling dissent.

And it isn’t only Patel – sedition as a charge is so broad and easy to apply that it is the Swiss army knife of the Indian state, whenever it wants to muzzle and detain people. Last week, the Punjab government registered cases of sedition against Sikh hardliners. Again, like Patel, the Sikh hardliners don’t exactly lend themselves to sympathy, but by clamping down on their free speech, the Punjab government is in many ways actually legitimising their politics.

Down in Tamil Nadu, the sedition law was used in an even more alarming way to prosecute a folk singer for his satirical songs against the government. Somewhat comically, sedition charges were even applied by a trial judge against Arun Jaitley for criticising the Supreme Court's judgement quashing the National Judicial Appointments Commission. Of course, this being the finance minster of the country, the charges were lifted within a fortnight by the Allahabad High Court, lucidly illustrating the incredibly arbitrary nature of the law.

Orwellian use of the law

Others were not that luckily and the sedition law has come in extremely handy when the state needs a quick tool to club dissent with. Here is small list of people absurdly charged with sedition over the past decade:

Manoj Shinde, journalist, August 2006: As editor of the Surat Saamna, the Gujarat police alleged he used “abusive words” for Chief Minister Narendra Modi while criticising him for his handling of the Surat floods.

Binayak Sen, doctor, May 2007: A staunch critic of Chhattisgarh’s vigilante army, the Salwa Judum, Sen was convicted for life in 2010 for helping the Maoists. An international uproar resulted in an abrupt order from the Supreme Court granting him bail.

Bharat Desai, Editor, June 2008: Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s government filed a case of sedition against the editor of the Times of India because it had published articles in the newspaper which questioned the appointment of the city police chief and alleged he was linked to an erstwhile underworld don.

Arundhati Roy, writer, November 2010: A private complaint was filed against Roy for delivering a speech that the complainant alleged was anti-India.

Aseem Trivedi, cartoonist, January 2012: Sedition charges were slapped against him for allegedly insulting national symbols using his cartoons.

Kudankulum protestors, March 2012: 11 Kudankulum protesters were charged with sedition for leading a protest against a nuclear power plant which they felt would pose an environmental hazard.

Stronger after 1947

As these examples show, the Indian state is almost cavalier in its application of sedition. Incredibly, the modern Indian state seems almost more enthusiastic in its use of sedition than the British Raj which actually birthed the law. The Raj rarely applied sedition for peaceful political activity. The two exceptions to this rule are Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1916 and Gandhi in 1922, who was sentenced to 6 years in prison but released after only 20 months. After this, the Raj did not use sedition for mainstream Congress leaders.

In 1929, for example, the Congress passed a resolution which, by seeking complete freedom for India, demanded to break the British Empire – an almost textbook case of sedition. Yet, the Raj did not use the sedition law. In contrast, modern India is locking up people for doing journalism and singing songs. In much the same vein, British India’s penultimate Viceroy, Lord Wavell, had noted in his diary that he was “cynically amused” to see that the reaction of India’s nationalist interim government to a simple electricity workers' strike in 1946 was to send in the army.

Of course, this is nothing new. Post-colonial states have very often used repressive colonial laws that were left behind by the departing rulers. In India, not only sedition, even the law for a patently unjust dismissal of an elected government ­– was bitterly opposed by the Congress pre-1947, only for it to accept the law wholeheartedly once it, and not the British, controlled the Centre. In 1959, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru would use this provision to dismiss Kerala’s government run by the rival communists, the act allowing the Congress to form the government subsequently.

The Raj, of course, held back its use of sedition out of political expediency and not out of any democratic spirit, per se. Arresting popular national leaders for sedition would have hurt, not helped, their rule. In Britain itself, sedition has long been a dead letter and was formally removed in 2009, with the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, Claire Ward, declaring that “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”.

Unfortunately, India is still living in that bygone era.