Crushing dissent

Lodging an FIR against a group of 49 eminent personalities, who wrote an open letter to the Indian prime minister three months ago to draw the latter’s attention towards the rise of mob lynchings in the country, is a shocking indication of the increasing intolerance to criticism at the official level. The government cannot shrug off responsibility by simply proclaiming that it had nothing to do with the case lodged in Bihar. Indeed, it was the district court of Muzzaffarpur that ordered for the case to be registered, in response to a petition by an advocate seeking penal action against the letter’s signatories. According to the petitioner, the letter writers have “tarnished the image of the country and undermined the impressive performance of the Prime Minister and were supporting secessionist tendencies.” The court has deemed criticism to be akin to secessionism. The government cannot be blamed for the court action. However, far from denouncing such an action, many personalities within BJP and the Sangh Parivar have openly justified the criminal complaint against the 49 citizens including prominent people like historian Ramachandra Guha and filmmaker Aparna Sen. The charge and action is atrocious and does not stand the test of scrutiny of law. Distinction needs to be drawn between criticism of the government and incitement of violence. Even if the letter is critical of the government but since it did not incite violence, it is not seditious. Secondly, the letter critics the ruling party for its failure to check the rise in lynchings and this in no way tarnishes the image of the country. The party in power cannot be deemed as the country. Besides dissent and criticism defines the health of democracy in a country, whose prestige is lowered if there is intolerance to expression of freedom of expression and certainly not if it is allowed. The action has thus rightly been opposed by several liberals and 185 more intellectuals have written an open letter in solidarity, condemning the harassment of 49 accused in sedition case and proclaiming that they endorse every word of the letter the latter had written to the prime minister. Such solidarity is triggering a chain reaction which may be difficult for the government to combat. It may be recalled that sometimes ago, the Supreme Court had held that Section 124A of the Criminal Procedure Code, or the sedition charge, is only applicable to acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder, or disturbance of law and order, or incitement to violence, and not to speech that is critical of the government. Similarly, in response to the misuse of sedition law, Justice Deepak Gupta of the Supreme Court last month spoke about the necessity to do away with the law that has become a tool of harassment in the hands of the ruling elite. The judge opined that the law of sedition needs to be toned down if not abolished and beseeched the government to make it a non-cognizable offence so that the persons are not arrested at the drop of a hat. The present ruling party is not the first one to have used the sedition law to crush dissent and voices of criticism. Several people including journalists, activists and intellectuals have been harassed in the past since independence, even though the law ironically is a legacy of the British empire that used this piece of legislation to target the freedom fighters. It is thus time to not just review the present case but ensure that this be scrapped.