Review: Sedition and the Quick Leap From Dissent to Deshdroh

Anushka Singh’s Sedition in Liberal Democracies delves into the impact of being slapped with a sedition case, whether real or politically-motivated, and the stigma - the taint of being anti-national - that it carries with it.

Sedition may be an archaic law, but it is certainly not out of fashion. Anushka Singh’s recently released book, Sedition in Liberal Democracies, has to be seen in the context of the continuing use of the sedition law in India to stifle free speech and different stripes of dissent. The book is an excellent addition to the existing material around sedition in India, bringing together legal, political, historical and anthropological perspectives on the theme, and includes a section dealing with comparative developments in the United Kingdom, United States and Australia.

Singh’s detailed account helps us think through the narrower legal category of sedition as laid down in section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and judicial interpretations of this law, in relation to a broader discursive category that has emerged that encompasses other laws such as waging war against the state, and anti-terror laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), as well as popular understanding of deshdroh or those who are disloyal to the nation.

This wider category, according to Singh, who is an assistant professor at the School of Law, Governance and Citizenship at Ambedkar University in New Delhi, is an iteration of the law that goes beyond its original meaning, and is produced in conversation with social, legal and political realms. The quotidian or everyday life of the law thus goes beyond the legal and technical meaning, and helps us understand the contradictions between the way sedition has been interpreted by the appellate courts in India, and the manner in which it operates at the level of trial courts, police, and continuing prosecutions of seditious speech despite judicial rulings limiting the application of the law.

This disjuncture is also explained by the strategic use of sedition law in ‘political cases’, cases that are seen to be of enough threat to the status quo, that the law is used as an effective mechanism of silencing criticism and dissent.

Sedition in Liberal Democracies
Anushka Singh
Oxford University Press, 2018

Sedition law, or the larger category of ‘seditious’ laws (which Singh outlines in the context of colonial administrators who apply these laws to stifle the nationalist movement) allows for this deadly use of the law. This can partly be attributed to the nature of the law itself – the fact that is non bailable, cognisable, is considered to be a serious offence, carries a maximum punishment of life imprisonment, but also the social effect of the law – the stigma that it carries with it, the taint of being anti-national or disloyal to the nation.

Through her field work, Singh shows us how those who have been charged with sedition law have in many cases been isolated form their communities, by painting the cause or struggle which is the target of these cases as illegitimate and outside the legitimate scope of criticism or dissent. Even those who sympathise with the larger objectives of these struggles decide to keep a distance for fear of being tainted as deshdroh by association.

Another theoretical framework that the book mobilises is the User Theory of Law, drawing upon the work of the anthropologist Laura Nader, who proposed when the plaintiffs are powerful entities, the law is shaped by them as their interests are well-defined and often buttressed by propaganda. In this book, Singh argues how the state’s use of the law through its mechanisms such as FIRs, chargesheets, bail etc. leads to overrated notions of what constitutes sedition.

The approach that Singh takes in the book may help us understand the contradictions in the way the law is used. For instance, could the manner in which trial courts and appellate courts seem to differ in their approach to sedition prosecutions be explained through the way that trial courts are more implicated in the quotidian everyday aspects of the law, while appellate courts have a notional distance that gives them more leeway to view this cases more objectively?

If sedition has emerged as a discursive category with multiple meanings as Singh suggests, then what does this mean for those who are contesting these cases, or challenging the law itself?

For example, let us take the Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s Private Member’s Bill seeking to amend section 124A of the IPC by narrowing the scope of the section to apply only to when the act in question directly results in incitement of violence and to commission of crimes that are punishable by life imprisonment under the IPC. This amendment is meant to plug the loopholes in the existing ‘tendency to cause violence’ test laid down by the Supreme Court in the Kedarnath Singh judgment, which gives more scope for the police to prosecute acts that may not lead to violence or disturbance of public order.

Even in the unlikely event it is passed, the question is whether this will have an impact if the way in which it will be interpreted will be driven by the police’s interpretation of the law, and that the meanings generated by the everyday use of the law will escape the legal definition. How does one then think of legal reform, or ‘reading down’ of criminal laws, a process by which the judiciary reinterprets the law to narrow down the scope of its application.

Singh’s account in the book highlights the political nature of the sedition law, partly evident from the targets of sedition law – these range from those espousing sub-nationalist cause and calls for secession to prominent Muslim political leaders, Dalit groups, those opposing indiscriminate mining, right to food activists, striking workers, environmental, anti nuclear and anti war activists, to those opposing the alcohol policy of a state government, against dominant castes agitating for reservations. Sedition charges have even been slapped against police personnel demanding better working conditions.

In Singh’s rendition, based on fieldwork in parts of Punjab, Haryana and Maharashtra, the act for which sedition is invoked itself fades into the background and what matters is who is committing the act and the status of the target of sedition. This is evident from the manner in which a regime change often results in multiple sedition cases filed against political opponents being withdrawn overnight.

One of the implicit questions that the book raises is the role of mass media, the way in which media projects, teases out, entices, and at times even incites sedition cases, mediating the leap from sedition to ‘seditious’, from an act of dissent to that of deshdroh. Given the manner in which citizens have been targeted by those in power for liking, sharing, commenting on, posting, or forwarding seditious material online, it is crucial that we study the relationship between law, media technology and these emerging publics and spaces of contestation more carefully.

Siddharth Narrain is visiting faculty at the School of Law, Governance and Citizenship at Ambedkar University, Delhi.