Thursday, April 15, 2021

Archaic laws

The filing of a charge-sheet naming student activists Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya in a sedition case from 2016 after three years by the Delhi police smacks of a political conspiracy or demonstrates the inefficiency of the police. It seems to be a case of bit of both. As per rules, criminal charge-sheets are filed within 90 days of the incident. The three were arrested in February 2016 on sedition charges for their involvement in a protest in which several students allegedly shouted “anti-national slogans” during a protest organized on the anniversary of hanging of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru. Seven more Kashmiri students are now part of the accusations revealing the methodical design to use the case as a political gimmick in run up to Lok Sabha polls. The BJP in power at present hopes to improve its sagging fortunes by projecting itself as a strong force against ‘anti-nationals’, a term that is vaguely used primarily for witch-hunting. Public perceptions are already tilted against Kashmiris because of rigorous propaganda as well as against those who speak about the human rights and sufferings of Kashmiris. The three student leaders who have been facing sedition case since 2016 have been espousing the cause of democracy and human rights in various public forums. The addition of seven Kashmiri students to that list serves the purpose of making it easier for the tag of ‘anti-nationalism’ to sink in the public imagination because of BJP’s success in projecting an extremely negative image of Kashmiri Muslims. Some Kashmiri students were said to be part of the JNU campus protest where the allegedly objectionable slogans. If this fact is being used to justify the latest charge-sheet, it only reflects poorly on the efficiency of the Delhi police. Does it take three years to identify these students? A related question is if the videos that surfaced in 2016 turned out to be doctored, which fresh evidence are the investigators now relying on? A far more vital question that is raised by the filing of the charge-sheet is the very validity of sedition in this case and the rationale of keeping such a law intact in the first place. In 2016, the apex court while upholding the sedition act, which can be struck down only through a parliamentary legislation, had laid down that “comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of actions of the government and which shun violence are not sedition.” The sedition law clearly refers to incitement of violence. It is thus as much inapplicable in this case as it is in the recent cases of slapping sedition against activists and intellectuals from Assam for opposing the Citizenship Bill. Dissent and criticism of the government are essential ingredients of a robust public debate in a vibrant democracy and are guaranteed by Article 19 of the Indian Constitution as part of freedom of expression. This right is inviolable even if the notes of expression are distasteful, jarring and hurtful as long as there is no incitement or provocation to violence. Loud remarks and slogans do not qualify as acts of sedition. Besides, it is time to scrap laws like sedition which are archaic and were introduced by the British with the explicit aim of stamping down freedom of expression and using it to disallow dissent. Spoken words may not often be easy on the ears and may be extremely objectionable and may have been recklessly made but to presume that words have the power to threaten the integrity and sovereignty of the country is outrageous. By that logic, to retain a law like sedition is to admit the flaws and weaknesses of the country’s democracy. The strength of democracy lies in the country’s ability to allow different and uncomfortable voices to be spoken and be countered with debate and rationale. Blanket bans and archaic laws like sedition on the other hand only promote a culture of intolerance and promote a political system that is antithetical of democratic values.