In 2007, the Chhattisgarh police arrested Binayak Sen, a doctor who had been working for years in rural areas of the state. They claimed he had links with Maoists. In particular, that he had carried letters for a jailed Maoist ideologue, Narayan Sanyal. They charged him with several offences, including sedition.

About three-and-a-half years later, a Chhattisgarh Sessions Court found Sen guilty. In his judgement, the words Judge BP Verma used to explain how Sen had committed sedition were these (translated from Hindi):

“It has been found in the investigation above that the [three letters] were written by the accused Narayan Sanyal in Central Jail, Raipur which were given to the accused Dr Binayak Sen during their meeting in the jail, and those letters were further given to the accused Piyush Guha with the aim of sending them to various Naxalite organisations … This proves … criminal conspiracy of sedition against the State.”

Think about this. Those few lines constitute the sum total of the judge’s findings against Sen in reference to sedition. Three letters are the sum total of a “criminal conspiracy of sedition against the State”, with Sen participating in it. I could offer you the contents of those three letters and let you see for yourself how head-scratchingly ordinary and innocuous they are, and therefore how ludicrous this charge is. But the point to understand here is the law of sedition that Sen was accused of, the evidence brought to court, and whether the evidence supports the charge.

Section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code, which defines sedition, is available to be used against whoever “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government estab­lished by law in India”.

Think about this, too. Because I would suggest that this law can be used against pretty much anyone in the country on any given day.

Disaffection towards government

Ever complained to your visiting sister-in-law about the bureaucratic stonewalling you got while trying to get a duplicate of your Delhi University degree? Ever criticised an elected government for its corruption during the Commonwealth Games, whether while campaigning for election, or in Parliament or even at home? Ever protested some government action, for example Indira Gandhi’s Emergency of the mid-1970s, or the firing on karsevaks by Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Uttar Pradesh government in 1990?

In every case, you’re clearly filled with “disaffection” with the government, and you’re trying to persuade others of that same disaffection. In other words, you’re exciting disaffection towards the government. Thus you’ve committed sedition.

If this strikes you as absurd, that’s because it is. And this is likely why, in 1962, the Supreme Court chose to spell out more explicitly what sedition is and isn’t. Ruling in the famous Kedarnath vs State of Bihar case, the court asserted then that a prosecution cannot sustain a charge of sedition against an accused if the accused did not directly incite violence.

So let’s see what we have. There’s a law that the British drafted to help them govern Indians in the wake of the 1857 uprising – remember that Section 124A dates from 1860. We freed ourselves of the British in 1947, yet we hold tight to the laws they used against us. Even if you are one of those who thinks we should indeed hold on to this law, there’s a 1962 Supreme Court ruling that tells us unequivocally when it can be applied.

In other words, we have a simple test: did an accused under Section 124(A) incite violence? If not, it isn’t sedition. Period.

So let’s apply the Kedarnath test to you. Did you directly incite violence in your complaint to your visiting sister-in-law? Did you incite violence in your criticism of an elected government for its corruption, or in your protest against that firing in Uttar Pradesh, or in speaking up against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency? If not, it isn’t sedition. Period.

Suppressing opposition

Return now to Binayak Sen. According to the evidence the prosecution produced in court – the letters – did Sen “excite disaffection towards the government”? If you think so – meaning you don’t believe my assertion that the letters are totally innocuous – remember that the prosecution only accused him of carrying the letters, not writing them himself. Does being a postman, or a courier, qualify as “exciting disaffection”? If you still think so, apply the Kedarnath test to Sen: did he, while carrying the letters, incite violence? You don’t need words from me to know that this is just further absurdity. After all, the prosecution never alleged or offered evidence that Sen incited violence, nor does Judge BP Verma’s judgement state it.

Therefore, it wasn’t sedition. Period.

Yet Judge Verma did find Sen guilty of sedition, and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Think of that. Especially in these times filled with swirling accusations of sedition and that epithet “anti-national”, think of why and on what grounds this man was given a life sentence.

The British had a definite reason for the law of sedition they drafted for India: they wanted to suppress opposition to their rule. Colonial powers like to do that. Arguably, they must do that to ensure the very survival of their regime in the face of a restive population.

So when elected governments in free India apply the same law, they too want to suppress opposition to their rule. Period. As the accusations and epithets swirl about, remember that.