The sedition sweepstakes have yielded a rich haul this season – six students shouting slogans one chilly night, and seven politicians who supported them.
On Sunday, a Hyderabad court ordered an FIR against Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi, Anand Sharma and Ajay Maken, Aam Aadmi Party chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, CPI leader D Raja and Janata Dal (United) spokesperson KC Tyagi. The court order came after a complaint by a lawyer, and the matter comes up for hearing on March 4.
If the “chilling effect” of the sedition law – or Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code – on the freedom of speech has not been enough to move politicians to do away with the colonial-era law in the past, perhaps personally feeling the heat will prompt them to agree to repeal this draconian piece of legislation?
This is not the first time politicians have been at the receiving end of the sedition law. Last November, a court in Mahoba, Uttar Pradesh, ordered sedition charges to be filed against Finance Minister Arun Jaitley for criticising the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act. The judge had found Jaitley’s sentiments “anti-national”. Earlier this month, the Allahabad High Court quashed the charges and suspended the judge.
Parties in the Opposition have periodically protested against sedition charges, but the clamour has always seemed designed to score political points rather than a genuine attempt to seek change. A principled case against the sedition law has rarely been made in Parliament.
The law was passed in the 19th century by a colonial government driven by impulses that are different from those of a democracy. It was a law meant to clamp down on dissent and compel subjects of the British Raj to love their masters. A parliamentary democracy, in contrast, is designed to include those who do not love the government and did not vote for it.
But political will to repeal the law has been weak. In 1951, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told Parliament that he found Section 124A “highly objectionable and obnoxious” and wanted to be rid of the vaguely worded law. That never happened, and in later years, after the courts read down the law, it moved to the back of the agenda. In 2011, the Supreme Court found that there was no valid case of sedition against civil rights activist Binayak Sen, accused of having links with a Maoist ideologue. At that time too, the then Law Minister Veerappa Moily said there was a need to revisit the law. But even this brief flicker of interest soon died.
Legislators remain unmoved when frivolous sedition charges are used against writers and actors expressing an opinion, students voicing dissent, mass leaders making demands on government. But being booked for sedition themselves should finally bring home how wildly farcical the charge can be. When all appeals by civil society have failed, it should persuade leaders across parties to make a united stand against Section 124A.