Sedition, or not?
What is sedition? Back in British India, under Thomas Macaulay in 1870s, a law was made to allow imprisonment for "words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, (that) brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government". The British intention promulgating such a law was obvious. When they used the law as a tool to suppress rebellion in India, Mahatma Gandhi – who was charged with sedition – famously said that the law had been "designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen". Quite rightly, the law reverberated only one fact from every facet – suppressing free speech so that nobody could even voice dissent let alone revolt. But history witnessed otherwise. In 1951, then PM Jawaharlal Nehru described the law as "highly objectionable and obnoxious". The colonial law, nevertheless, retained its place in IPC alongside offences of obscenity, contempt of court and defamation. They all remain virtually unchanged in the Constitution. However, the debate never really ended. Sedition would come in conflict with free speech time and again. The law has been applied several times and undergone several interpretations. In 1962, a five-judge Constitution Bench judgment of the Supreme Court in Kedar Nath Singh versus State of Bihar held that "comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of actions of the government" and which shun violence are not sedition. "In other words, disloyalty to government established by law is not the same thing as commenting in strong terms upon the measures or acts of government, or its agencies, so as to ameliorate the condition of the people or to secure the cancellation or alteration of those acts or measures by lawful means, that is to say, without exciting those feelings of enmity and disloyalty which imply excitement to public disorder or the use of violence," the Constitution Bench explained. So, when the 1962 verdict happened, sedition, for the first time in history, received some sort of a functioning mechanism. It got its upper-limit. Nevertheless, the colonial law was employed repeatedly as a political instrument to suppress opposition, often carrying a reprehensible outlook. Fast forward to 2019, former JNU Students' Union president Kanhaiya Kumar and nine others were rewarded a 1,200-page charge sheet filed by Delhi Police along with video evidence to corroborate the controversial February 9, 2016 incident, which had taken the nation by storm. A group of students, at the behest Kanhaiya Kumar, had organised a campus event to commemorate Afzal Guru's third death anniversary. ABVP staged a massive protest demanding the expulsion of students involved in anti-nationalism. A mere disciplinary inquiry was not enough. From the lawns of JNU, the issue took a flight straight into the ambit of opposing national integrity. Indeed, the leap was grand. Kanhaiya Kumar rocked the dailies for a long period. The issue also reduced students to uninspiring anti-nationals. The crux was the slogans and the ramifications they have since brewed. Students were seen chanting slogans like "Kashmir ki azadi tak Bharat ki azadi tak, jang rahegi jari" in a purported video that was doing the rounds. Consequently, Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested. The court hearing and tussle outside courtroom amidst passive outrage among JNU students ensued. On August 26, 2016, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were finally released on regular bail. And, the nation moved forward from a stretched saga of sedition (or not). The timing of the charge sheet filed, as Kanhaiya rightly put, is indeed surprising. Kanhaiya and Khalid remained confident about this new development being nothing but a "politically motivated" drama and "diversionary ploy". The matter was scheduled to be heard in a Delhi court on January 15 but was shifted to January 19 due to unavailability of the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Deepak Sherawat. While they await a hearing, it is crucial to note how the Kedar Nath judgement's restriction on the law of sedition does not seem synonymous to the perturbations caused by the anti-national slogans in February 2016. Maybe then it can be comprehended why Delhi Police attached a series of charges beside sedition to augment the weight of the charge sheet. Supporting the charge sheet is documented evidence comprising statements from students and security guards which can be compromised. It is the decision of the court ultimately to find them unsubstantial and look at this case from the eyes of the Kedar Nath verdict. Further, in its consultative paper on sedition, Law Commission of India said dissent and criticism of the government are essential ingredients for robust public debate in a vibrant democracy. So, while our nation has tackled adultery, Section 377 and even Triple Talaaq in the highest court, it is about time sedition got in the queue and was made subject to deep scrutiny!