The Indian State must scrap the sedition law
A mature, liberal democracy cannot fight its own citizens
Nearly three years ago, a crowd in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) was heard protesting what it called the “judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhatt”— two terrorists executed by the Indian State upon being handed the death sentence after full hearing by the courts of law. The chants in support of terrorists and against the Indian Union were condemnable but the question for the Indian authorities was: How should a liberal democracy react to such events? Unfortunately, India decided to unleash the repressive might of the State against the accused. The Delhi police has filed a charge sheet on Monday, slapping sedition, among other charges, on 10 protesters, including three student activists — Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya.
Whether these students were indeed chanting those slogans is for the courts to adjudicate on, but the use of a colonial-era sedition law on free citizens of the Indian republic is disconcerting. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code was an instrument used by the colonial administration to repress the voices in the freedom movement. Recognising the potential for its misuse, the Supreme Court in 1962 had restricted its usage to cases in which there was a clear incitement to violence. However, police forces across India continue to use this law to arrest hapless citizens. In 2016, there were 33 cases reported under Section 124A, 12 of these in Haryana alone. In 2015, 73 were arrested on the charge of sedition, 40 in Bihar alone. The number of people arrested under this section in 2014 was 55, with Bihar and Jharkhand accounting for 46 of them.
Clearly, the dilution introduced by the Supreme Court in 1962 has not deterred the administration and police forces from arresting citizens. This law now needs to go. A mature, liberal democracy cannot fight its own citizens. If there is a bona fide conspiracy against the Indian State, there are enough laws in the statute book to look into them. In 1989, a landmark case, Texas v. Johnson, was decided by the US Supreme Court. The court ruled that Gregory Lee Johnson’s act of burning the US flag was protected under freedom of speech. Most notably, Justice Anthony Kennedy said: “It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.” It is high time the Indian police, judiciary and legislature learnt from Justice Kennedy.
First Published: Jan 15, 2019 18:32:56