Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Regressive decision

The Centre’s decision to not scrap the sedition law of colonial legacy is regressive one. That the union government is using the pretext of using sedition aw “to effectively combat anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements”, as stated by Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai in the Rajya Sabha as a justification for continuation of the statute is even more worrying. The law, whose origins lay in the bid to crush the Indian national freedom movement during the reign of the British colonial powers, has been grossly misused, post independence, in the last seven decades with the explicit aim to stifle dissent. The law is ambiguous enough to be invoked for pure vendetta or to silence any opposition and it severely militates against the constitutional guarantees of fundamental rights of the citizens, particularly freedom of expression. The constitutional validity of sedition law rests upon either an intention to create public disorder or incitement of violence. However, governments have wrongly used the law to stonewall dissent or as a vindictive tool against adversaries. While successive government have used the sedition laws for political benefits, its brazen abuse since the rise of the BJP has been an even bigger cause for concern. 47 cases of sedition were filed in 2014 alone and 58 persons arrested. A cursory look at some of the sedition cases that were slapped from time to time during Modi led BJP’s previous tenure in power is enough to demonstrate this point. In 2016, JNU students were charged for anti-India slogans raised on campus. Shortly afterwards, a petition against Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi for supporting the agitating JNU students was filed in Hyderabad. Later that year, Amnesty International was charged with sedition for organising a programme with victims of human rights abuse from Kashmir speaking to an audience in Bangalore. A Kashmiri youth in Chattisgarh stands charged of sedition for liking a facebook post and leading Kannada actress Ramya was even more bizarrely charged of sedition for saying “Pakistan is not hell” while opposing union defence minister for indulging in bellicose rhetoric. Before that in 2015, BJP led Maharashtra government came out with an official circular that gave the government sweeping powers to clamp down on all critics with sedition charges, a draconian order that was rightly struck down by the Maharashtra high-court with the observations that the circular implied that everybody in the opposition can be put behind bars. The government’s decision to use the law as part of counter-terrorism strategy raises similar concerns as there are genuine fears of targeting one community. The ambiguity of the law can alternatively be misused to go soft on others. It is against the concept of liberal democracy to press sedition charges solely for expressing hatred, contempt or ill-will against the government of the day. If such remarks and actions provoke and promote violence and riots, there are other existing laws within the Indian constitution that can be invoked. This makes the very existence of sedition law defined under Article 124-A redundant. That is why it needs to be dispensed with lock, stock and barrel. Unfortunately, sedition is used as a tool propped up with liberal doses of ultra-nationalistic discourse to clampdown on all forms of dissent and thus undermine democratic ethos and democratic norms. The existence and application of law through it brazen misuse are both a threat to democracy and that is why the issue calls for serious introspection and steps to dispense with the law. Archaic and draconian laws which have an imperial legacy must be scrapped through legislation in the parliament. Till that time, certain steps need to be taken to ensure that the law is not used to victimise people and to safeguard the constitutional right of freedom of speech.