It is a safe bet that no government will withdraw any of the laws which ostensibly exist to protect the nation from internal and external threats, but are nearly always misused.
Notwithstanding the protests against the charges of sedition levelled against the actress, Divya Spandana, alias Ramya, for contradicting Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s castigation of Pakistan, or against the Amnesty International for allowing “Azadi” slogans to be raised during a conclave on Kashmir, Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code is here to stay as it prescribes punishment for creating “disaffection” towards the government, which means, in the government’s view, indulging in sedition.
Why do governments have such preference for a colonial-era law under which Gandhi was booked? The reason is that is a handy tool in their hands for penalising their opponents. However, Section 124A of the IPC is not the only law which governments have used to browbeat and even incarcerate their critics.
At the moment, it may be the Narendra Modi government’s preferred choice – it wielded the law with alacrity against its one-time bugbear, Kanhaiya Kumar of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and several other rebellious students – but an earlier favourite was POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act). As many as 800 people were jailed in the two years of its unlamented existence between 2002 and 2004 and 4,000 were booked.
But this was chicken feed compared to the 75,000 people who were detained under TADA (Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Act) in a decade before it lapsed in 1995. Interestingly, 73,000 of these cases had to be subsequently withdrawn for lack of evidence, underlining the casual and vindictive manner in which the governments wield these draconian laws.
Their main feature is detention without trial. The principle of habeas corpus dating back to the Magna Carta signed by an English king in 1215, under which an arrested person has to be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours, is inoperative in these cases. Perhaps the most infamous of these laws is MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act), which was the guillotine which hung over the heads of Indira Gandhi’s adversaries when she was Prime Minister.
The use of the word, internal, is noteworthy because for all of her fulminations against the “foreign hand”, she was mainly concerned about her domestic opponents. The measure was also mockingly called the “Maintenance of Indira and Sanjay Act” when the mother-and-son duo ruled the roost during the Emergency (1975-77).
Although these blacks laws blot India’s democratic record, politicians continue to cling to them apparently because of their sense of insecurity which even a majority in the Lok Sabha does not dispel. For instance, MISA which allowed, among other things, indefinite preventive detention and the search and seizure of property without a warrant, was imposed in 1971 when Indira Gandhi was at the height of her power.
Similarly, although the terrorist attack on parliament in 2001 was one of the reasons – 9/11 in America was another – for enacting POTA in 2002, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s political position at the head of a 24-member coalition was fairly secure at the time and he might have won a second term in 2004 but for the Gujarat riots which, he said, were responsible for the BJP’s defeat.
In the same manner, the BJP’s current majority in the Lok Sabha has not dissuaded it from using the sedition law at every available opportunity. One explanation for this propensity is apparently the need to focus on a hate object to consolidate the party’s base of support. The party is aware that for all of Modi’s popularity – his development pitch keeps him politically afloat – the BJP is up against considerable odds in the states.
It lost badly in Delhi and Bihar, won in Assam because of Rahul Gandhi’s mishandling of the Congress rebels in the state, and faces formidable challenges in U.P. from the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Even the Congress is not a write-off, given the enthusiastic crowds which greeted Sonia Gandhi in Varanasi, making a pro-BJP scribe miss a heartbeat.
In such circumstances, the BJP needs enemies who can be branded as anti-nationals and refurbish the party’s patriotic credentials. For a time, the BJP thought it had found the traitorous fifth columnists in the Leftist bastion of the JNU. The discovery also diverted attention from the party’s and the Sangh Parivar’s student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s (ABVP), botched attempt to cleanse the Hyderabad central university of seditious elements.
But the suicide of a Dalit student in Hyderabad and the subsequent thrashing of a group of Dalits skinning a cow, which is their traditional occupation, by saffron storm-troopers in Gujarat, queered the pitch for the BJP. Now the Hindutva brigade is lashing out at random as the charges against Ramya and the Amnesty International show.
The resultant (mis)use of the law on sedition, especially against an internationally-acclaimed organisation like the Amnesty, cannot but show the Modi government in a poor light before the world, reinforcing the perception of its intolerance which was first highlighted when a number of writers, artists, historians, and others returned their awards. IPA
(The author is a political analyst. Views expressed are strictly personal.)