The recent events at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus have caught the attention of national media. Along expected lines, the raging row in JNU has turned into an ideological turf war between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre and its opponents on the Left. To the uninitiated, the current controversy pertains to news reports that an FIR has been registered with respect to a public meeting organised at the varsity’s campus on the evening of February 9. The meeting had reportedly turned into protests against the hanging of Afzal Guru. It has been alleged that during the course of these events, some people had raised incendiary anti-national slogans. In response to a complaint filed by a BJP Member of Parliament, an FIR has been registered against the protesting students under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which lists out the provisions of India’s sedition law. The Delhi Police have already arrested one person on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy. Meanwhile, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has upped the ante on the protesting students. A few days earlier, Singh had said that those who raise anti-national slogans will “not be spared”. On Sunday, however, he went a step further and alleged that Lashkar-e-Taiba figurehead Hafiz Saeed supported the protests at JNU. In response to Singh’s statements on Sunday, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary, Sitaram Yechury, asked the Ministry of Home Affairs to share its evidence with the Indian public and prove these charges. Unfortunately, in the midst of this political slugfest between protesting student groups and political parties, the Indian public has lost an opportunity to have an honest discussion on its colonial-era sedition law.
Under Section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code, a person can be charged with sedition if his speech or act “attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government”. The sedition law was first promulgated by the British Raj in an obvious bid to stifle free speech and expression, which posed a grave threat its colonial rule. Many freedom fighters during the anti-colonial struggle were jailed under the sedition law, including Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi. In a proud democratic republic like India, it is a crying shame that our governments still use the same British-era sedition law to stifle freedom of speech and expression. In response to being charged under Section 124A, Gandhi once told a British judge that “sedition was the highest moral duty of a citizen”. Since the law is about “disaffection against the state”, Gandhi said that “affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law”. Fast forward to Independent India and even India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said that Section 124A “is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons”. Unfortunately, Nehru did little or was unable to remove Section 124A from our statute books. Moreover, subsequent Congress-led governments have been equal opportunity offenders in using the sedition law. Due to its extremely wide ambit, the law is still often used by the police as a tool to silence dissidents. Fortunately, convictions under the sedition law are rare because of a caveat added by the Supreme Court in its 1962 judgment.
The apex court made it abundantly clear that seditious speech and expression could be punished only if the speech is accompanied by “violence” or leads to a direct “incitement” to “violence”. In a subsequent judgment, the apex court went one step further and unambiguously stated that only speech that amounts to “incitement to imminent lawless action” can be criminalised. Merely making calls for a violent revolution against the State cannot amount to sedition unless it can be proven that there is an incitement to “imminent” violence. More importantly, in its popular judgment on Section 66 of the IT Act in 2015, the apex court makes a clear distinction between “advocacy” and “incitement”, stating that only the latter can be punished as per law. So if the Supreme Court has indeed taken such a position on the sedition law, they why do governments continue to throw the rule book at their dissidents? The answer lies in the fact that sedition is a non-bailable and cognizable offence. In other words, those dissidents who are charged under the sedition law are guaranteed to spend a few nights in jail. This newspaper does not support or advocate or support violent anti-national statements. But to jail protesting students and attack them through the barbaric and brutal acts of the police for merely voicing these sentiments presents a very disturbing picture of the Indian republic.