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25 September, 2012

Dissent as high crime

BRP Bhaskar
More than 7,000 people living in villages around the site of the Koodankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu are facing charges of sedition, an offence for which the Indian Penal Code prescribes a punishment of up to life imprisonment. Their crime: they are asking the government not to commission the nuclear plant as they fear it will endanger their lives and livelihood.

Under Section 124A of the IPC, whoever, by words, spoken or written, or by signs or visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government, is guilty of sedition.

Continued use of this legal provision, enacted by the British regime in 1870, by governments to deal with dissent is a stark reminder that the colonial character of the state apparatus remains intact more than six decades after the country gained freedom and proclaimed itself a democratic republic.

The loose wording of the section allows the authorities to cast the net wide. The British, however, used it with circumspection. They targeted the leaders of the freedom movement and not the ordinary people. They never slapped sedition charge against several thousand people at the same time, as the Tamil Nadu police has done.

The British tried Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who had declared self-rule was the people’s birthright, for sedition and jailed him twice, in 1897 and 1909, and Mahatma Gandhi once, in 1922. Both the leaders were prosecuted for articles they had written in their publications.

In one of the impugned articles Gandhi had said, “The sepoy has been used more often as a hired assassin than as a soldier defending the liberty or the honour of the weak and the helpless.” In another, he had written: “We are challenging the might of this government because we consider its activity to be wholly evil. We want to overthrow the government.” When the charges were read out in court, he admitted guilt.

When a member of parliament questioned the continuance of the sedition law in 1951, a year after the Constitution was promulgated, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, “The sooner we get rid of it the better.” However, neither he nor his successors removed the obnoxious provision from the law, and the state governments have invoked it time and again against critics.

The Supreme Court, while upholding the constitutional validity of the IPC section on sedition, ruled that it can be applied only to “acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder or disturbance of law and order, or incitement to violence.” However, governments continue to invoke it even against those involved in peaceful movements against government policies.

Those against whom it has been wielded include Binayak Sen, noted paediatric surgeon working among the tribes of Chhattisgarh; Arundhati Roy, Booker Prize winning writer; Ajay Sahu, leader of the movement against the POSCO steel project in Odisha and SP Udayakumar, leader of the anti-nuclear campaign at Koodankulam. Sen has been charged with helping Naxalite rebels. Roy is being prosecuted for questioning the government’s Kashmir policy.

The conviction rate in sedition cases is only about five per cent. However, governments continue to invoke it recklessly as the courts, considering the seriousness of the charge, often deny the accused bail.

Four years ago the Gujarat police registered five sedition cases against the Times of India after it reported that Home Minister Amit Shah had rewarded Police Commissioner OP Mathur for scuttling a fake encounter investigation. The high court threw out the cases. Both Shah and Mathur are now facing criminal charges.

Binayak Sen’s case became a cause célèbre after more than 20 Nobel laureates signed a petition against his prolonged incarceration. The Supreme Court then granted him bail, reversing its earlier stand.

The sedition charge against Aseem Trivedi, a cartoonist who caricatured national institutions, recently provoked a national debate on this legal provision. Recognising the popular mood, the government decided to drop the charge of sedition against him. The use of the law against entire villages in Tamil Nadu figured only marginally in the debate.

Britain repealed its sedition law two years ago. The Indian political class is not willing to give up the anachronistic legacy of British rule embedded in the IPC because it is yet to develop the sensibility needed to accept dissent as an essential part of democratic practice. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 25, 2012.

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