Repeal Sedition law

Recent developments in Jawaharlal Nehru University have vitiated the political atmosphere, most particularly the alleged conspiracy of a section of the ABVP at the behest of a local BJP legislator. The sinister twists and turns of politics is now a matter of concern.

Public opinion is generally against the retention of the “sedition law”. It has even been described as an anachronism. In the original draft of the Constitution, the law on sedition was incorporated to curb the fundamental freedom of speech and expression in exceptional circumstances. The provision was, however, dropped after a prolonged debate. K M Munshi had advocated its deletion from Article 19 because “the party system which necessarily involves an advocacy of the replacement of one government by another is its only bulwark; the advocacy of a different system of government should be welcome because that gives vitality to a democracy.” TT Krishnamachari supported Munshi, saying that in the USA a similar piece of legislation became “non-functional” in 1802.

Nehru said: “Take again Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. Now so far as I am concerned, that particular Section is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons. The sooner we get rid of it, the better.”

Alas, such words were never translated to action; they remained merely on paper. Section 124A continues to be used as a weapon of oppression by all governments. It is also surprising that the sedition law, which was formulated by the British, is still mentioned in the Indian law. In Britain, the law on sedition has been abolished primarily because the offence is defined in vague and uncertain terms. This offends the fundamental principles of criminal law. It refers to a particular historical context — sovereignty in the person of the King — which no longer holds. The law is archaic and must be done away with. Another reason that has been cited in Britain is that while certain political views may be unreasonable or unpopular, they cannot be “criminalised”. This offends democratic values. Furthermore, the definition of sedition offends fundamental freedoms of speech and expression which are universally recognised. In practice, the law is used to silence political opposition or criticism of the government. This has a “chilling effect” on free speech, it was observed by the government while abrogating the law. In the context of the turmoil in JNU, now is the right time for all parties to demand the repeal of the sedition law. Indeed, to reaffirm their bonafides, all parties should acknowledge the importance of public morality in politics, as emphasized by Ram Manohar Lohia, the socialist leader. He had said: “Political morality requires that there should be conformity between word and deed”. And this can only be ensured if the other parties match their speeches against sedition by formally passing a resolution in the Rajya Sabha (where they have a majority) to repeal the law. The BJP, which is in the opposition in the House of Elders, might well criticise the move as undemocratic and anti-people.

A recent resolution adopted by various unions, representing human rights and civil liberties, has demanded that the Opposition parties must take the initiative. Can we expect them to match their words with deeds? If they do so, the BJP will stand exposed in the matter of civil liberties.

In fact, a similar petition, demanding repeal of the sedition law, had been sent to the Congress-led UPA Government in 2012. Unfortunately, it was not even acknowledged. This begs the question — Can the Opposition now redeem its lapse and at the same time score a political point against the Modi government?

Such a declaration by the Opposition parties has become direly imperative. It is intriguing that these parties have been silent even in the aftermath of the attack on the human rights activist, Soni Suri, as well as lawyers of the Legal Aid Group in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region. Matters were made worse by the area’s IGP, SRP Kaluri, who had the temerity to remark that the attack on “Soni was a part of a conspiracy hatched by the JNU student, Umar Khalid”. Were the goons who attacked Soni hand-in-glove with the police? Earlier too, Soni had been tortured by the police in Bastar. It was only after PUCL moved the Supreme Court that she was given some relief and was allowed to get medical aid at AIIMS, Delhi.

The fact of the matter is that rabid elements of the RSS have now become active. And they are certain that the Modi government will not take action. Otherwise, how is it that such provocative instigation to criminal conduct is being overlooked by the police? A few examples will suffice:

The Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha observes Republic Day as “black day” and November 15, the day Nathuram Godse was hanged, as Balidaan Diwas. On that day, this RSS outfit took the oath, swearing to make India a “Hindu Rashtra”.

The malaise has afflicted the government as well. A certain minister in the Modi government attended a condolence meeting that was convened after a VHP worker was killed allegedly by a Muslim in Agra. He is said to have encouraged VHP activists to raise explosive communal slogans. Mr Katheria claims that his hands are not tied simply because he is a Minister. He asserted that such meetings would continue. One had expected that Narendra Modi, who keeps himself in silent mode, would at least act quietly and dismiss the Minister from his Cabinet. Nothing has happened. The Prime Minister has not even spoken on the matter, far less condemn Katheria. Such silence on the part of the Prime Minister can only divide the nation. I feel Katheria’s case is provocative enough for the President to ask the PM to remove him from his Ministry. If Modi fails to do so, the President should himself dismiss the Minister. He is oath-bound to do so. I am also surprised why the UP Government is quiet and has not registered a criminal case against Katheria. This ought to have been done in the interest of secularism, as enshrined in our Constitution. Not to act suitably can incur the dismissal of the government, as pointed out by the Supreme Court in the Keshavanand case in 1973.