Do We Really Need a Sedition Law?

Democracies must be confident enough in their powers to withstand criticism. Clinging to an all encompassing vaguely worded sedition law will do more harm than good to our democracy.

In the light of the events at Jawaharlal Nehru University, section 124A of the Indian Penal Code – the notorious section that punishes people for sedition – is in the news again. It is about time we considered repealing this provision of law. I have not voiced a very radical suggestion. The person after whom the university at the centre of the controversy is named had the following thoughts on this piece of legislation:

“Now so far as I am concerned, that particular Section (section 124A of the IPC) is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons, if you like, in any body of laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better. We might deal with that matter in other ways, in more limited ways, as every other country does but that particular thing, as it is, should have no place, because all of us have had enough experience of it in a variety of ways and apart from the logic of the situation, our urges are against it.’

Nehru made this statement in Parliament in 1951, and yet, here we are, in 2016, saddled with the same rule.

The most interesting aspect of section 124A is its durability. The text is, for all practical purposes, the same text that was used by the British to put Gandhi behind bars. The person with respect to whom it was beyond imagination to suggest an incitement to violence or public disorder was convicted under this section for precisely those reasons. Our constitution makers and our legislators, by keeping this section alive in our political lives, have done us a great disservice. I would include Nehru in this group, who despite the lofty sentiments expressed above, let the status quo continue during his time.

What’s even more galling is that the United Kingdom, the most enthusiastic user of sedition laws during colonial times, repealed its sedition laws in 2009. The British parliamentary debates on repealing the law referenced the deleterious effect of such laws on political freedom in colonial India and pointed out in particular the case of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who was convicted for sedition in 1908. The British are inspired by our history while we ignore it. The British repealed their sedition laws because they had become obsolete; the government rarely used the heavy arm of the criminal law against trenchant critics of the state. In India, the sedition law has been used frequently not only against serious threats to the security of the state but also against lecturers, journalists, human rights activists and cartoonists. There is no danger yet in India of the obsolescence of sedition laws. The British parliamentarians were also concerned about improving the standing of their country in the global arena; the British felt that they would be in better position to lecture other countries on their authoritarian regimes if they first put their own house in order. Perhaps our parliamentarians can be motivated by similar feelings.

One course of action which is futile is to insist on a strict interpretation of section 124A. The Supreme Court has indeed interpreted this section to ensure that it applies only to actions that have a direct and unambiguous connection to violence or public disorder. Politicians with power, police authorities and lower courts have a tendency to ignore these niceties in applying such laws. That is why it would be better if we do away wholesale with the current legislative provisions on sedition.

Democracies must be confident enough in their powers to withstand criticism. India must instead look to see if we can have more targeted and narrow legal approaches towards activities designed to encourage terrorism. We are then likely to notice that such targeted approaches are either already present in our laws or can be easily accommodated within our legal system. Clinging to an all encompassing vaguely worded sedition law will do more harm than good to our democracy.

Powerful politicians in the ruling party are riled that students at one of the best educational institutions in India are protesting against Afzal Guru’s conviction. Afzal Guru was tried and convicted after a trial and his conviction was confirmed by the highest court of the land. However, many scholars and activists have raised important questions about his guilt and while the Supreme Court’s determination is final, it is not infallible. Even assuming the fact that the protestors were utterly misguided, invoking the law of sedition is certainly inappropriate at a university, other than in exceptional circumstances. The protestors are students after all. They are at an age where they have a right to be wrong. They are in a place where being ridiculous is as important as being sublime. If the students have been motivated by politics and politicians to make a spectacle of themselves, so be it. Arresting young people for their immaturity is, to paraphrase the London Times, breaking a butterfly on a wheel.

Nigam Nuggehalli is Associate Professor, Azim Premji University, Bangalore