Fourteen students of the Aligarh Muslim University were booked for sedition after an altercation with journalists from the news channel Republic TV on Tuesday. The first information report against them was filed on a complaint by Mukesh Singh Lodhi, district president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s youth wing who claimed he was driving past the campus just as the clash was taking place. Lodhi said he heard the students shout “Pakistan zindabad, Bharat murdabad”. Hurrah Pakistan, Down with India.
What exactly happened on the campus is contested but when it comes to sedition, the script is painfully familiar. The sedition law was made by the British Raj to suppress voices inimical to their rule. It was retained in modern India, and used as a political tool by successive governments.
In Aligarh, for one, suggesting that the students were trying to overthrow the Indian government – which is what is implied by sedition – would be absurd. The sedition law then is simply being used by the BJP government to prepare the ground for the upcoming general election.
This situation exists despite a very high legal bar for the sedition law to apply. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that only “incitement to imminent lawless action” could be criminalised. This means convictions for sedition are few and far between. From 2014 to 2016, out of the 112 cases of sedition filed across India, only two led to convictions, clearly indicating that the law is being used to serve political ends.
Still, governments keep using the sedition law. In Assam, a state facing turmoil, as many as 251 sedition cases have been filed by the BJP government since 2016.
Aligarh then is yet another reminder: the colonial-era sedition law has no place in a democratic country such as India. The longer it stays on the statute books, the more it will be misused by politicians for personal gain.