Freedom of Expression

No More Sedition

Wire-editorialTill now, the knee-jerk application of the charge of sedition on all manner of people and even organisations was reaching absurd levels; with the filing of a case against actor Ramya for expressing the most innocuous of opinions it has entered surreal territory. What is more, where so far we have seen intolerant governments loosely invoke the sedition charge, this time round the courts have admitted a complaint by an advocate alleging that she had “insulted India” and “provok[ed] the people of India.”

What exactly did the star – who is a former MP and is known to take strong positions on social issues – say? After a visit to Pakistan, where she was offered warmth and hospitality, she said that the country was “not hell; the people there are just like us.” The reference was clearly to an earlier statement by the country’s defence minister Manohar Parrikar, who had called the neighbouring country “hell.” Parrikar is by now known for his tendency to speak undiplomatically and indiscreetly; moreover, he and his party colleagues rarely miss an opportunity to snipe at Pakistan. If anything, Ramya provided the much needed antidote to such regular hate-mongering.

Any sensible court would have refused to entertain such an application, but a judge in Somwarpet in Karnataka admitted it, though not under Section 124A. But such is the current atmosphere in the country and so loud are the drum beaters of patriotism that nothing can be taken for granted.

The free and liberal use of the pernicious law of sedition – a law that has no place in a democratic order – is getting out of hand. In the last four years, cartoonists, students, a doctor and now a human rights organisation were all charged with sedition; in not one of these cases did any of them call for violence against the state, which is what the Supreme Court has repeatedly said the crime of sedition has to involve. The worst that could be said is that they expressed dissent and surely that is no crime. Yet, an increasingly itchy-fingered state is beginning to see any contrary opinion as somehow treacherous and seditious.

Taking a cue from the government, now private citizens – some busybodies, others hungry for cheap publicity and still others fired by bogus patriotic fervour – are getting into the act. Sadly, this hunt for headlines will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, because many citizens could become careful of what they say in public. That diminishes our democracy like nothing else. Ramya has bravely said she will not apologise; not everyone will stand up to such bullies.

Once again, this is a good time to kick off a debate on a law that the British Raj used against some of India’s greatest freedom fighters like Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi. India is today  a democracy, ruled by representatives voted in by its citizens. They have the freedom to say just about anything, and certainly to criticise the state’s policies. The Wire strongly believes that the law of sedition has no place in modern India’s statute books. When the police and even the lower judiciary refuse to be bound by the Supreme Court’s strictures on how the law may be applied, it is time to give Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code a decent burial.