Rights

Abolishing Sedition Would be a Befitting Tribute to Gandhi's 150th Birth Anniversary

This colonial vestige continues to be most commonly used by governments against those who practice free speech or speak truth to power.

After 71 years of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, this one speech is still the most powerful political statement in the world history. It is also one of the most forthright and fearless testimonies of defiance against the state – a remorseless admission of his ‘crime’ in the court of law. At a time when large numbers of scholars, activists, students, poets, social workers and lawyers are booked under the same colonial law which indicted Gandhi almost 100 years ago, this particular statement has special significance.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi delivered this statement on March 18, 1922 before Judge C.N. Broomfield in the district court of Ahmedabad. He admitted to preaching “disaffection” against the then “existing system of government,” which he said, had become “almost a passion” for him.

Gandhi was charged with spreading disaffection in the three ‘offensive’ articles he wrote in Young India. He was booked along with the publisher and printer, Shankar Lal Banker, under the section 124 (A) of Indian Penal Code.

Also read: A Higher Threshold Should Be Set for Prosecution Under Sedition Law

This penal section continues to be most commonly used by governments against those who practice free speech or speak truth to power. Gandhi pleaded guilty to the charges in front of the judge saying, “I knew that I was playing with fire. I ran the risk and if I was set free, I would still do the same.”

In February 1922, Gandhi was pushed on the back-foot as he had to call off the Bardoli movement – the first all India protest against the British. The reason behind calling off the movement was the killing of more than 20 policemen by protestors at Chauri Chaura near Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. Distressed by the violence, Gandhi withdrew the non-cooperation movement immediately; a political setback for him. When the sedition case was filed against him, Gandhi used this opportunity to attack the Raj and redeem the ground lost.

“He could have gone to political wilderness,” says Tridip Suhrud, writer and political scientist, explaining the importance of Gandhi’s arrest under the sedition law. “It is likely that Gandhi would have taken or the nation would have taken longer to recover from Chauri Chaura and calling off the non-cooperation movement.”

Challenging the British Raj, Gandhi termed section 124 (A) as “ [a] prince among the political sections of [the] Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.” He declared in front of the judge that “affection cannot be manufactured and regulated by law.” He told the judge that it was a “privilege” for him to be charged under this section as “most loved of India’s patriots” were booked under the same.

Gandhi reading next to his spinning wheel. Credit: eBay

Gandhi reading next to his spinning wheel. Credit: eBay

Ironically, even after almost 100 years of that remarkable statement, the same colonial law haunts those challenging government might. This is despite the fact that our constituent assembly had debated sedition and rejected it. The leaders didn’t allow sedition to be part of the constitution. Nevertheless, successive regimes have booked, arrested and incarcerated people under section 124 (A), which continues to be part of Indian Penal Code (IPC).

The sedition law is often misused against those speaking their mind even if the charge cannot be proven in court. In most cases, the police don’t even file a charge sheet. Even then, victims have to often spend years in prison.

Recent data published by the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) show an increase in the number of sedition cases filed every year. That there have been only two convictions in three years – between 2014 and 2016 – exemplifies the frivolousness of these charges. A total of 179 cases were filed under the sedition law between 2014 and 2016. However, no charge sheet was filed in over 80% of the cases by the end of 2016. Trial could start only in 10% of cases.

Though India is no longer ruled by the British and has democratically elected governments within a federal structure, shades of colonialism are still visible in governance. The already widening fault lines have today widened more than before.

The failure of elected governments to establish dialogue with dissenting people and conduct a political process is evident in all parts of India – from Kashmir to the north eastern region. The continued and heavy presence of police and armed forces has raised questions on how democratically these governments are functioning.

Also read: My Impressions of the Sedition-Accused Students of JNU

Moreover, the distinction between the state and its people is often blurred. Governments project themselves as synonymous with ‘The Nation’. They propagate the notion that speaking against government is an ‘anti-national’ activity. There are blatant attempts to politicise the armed forces and the tricolour is often flaunted not out of a feeling of patriotism but as manifestation of jingoistic bigotry.

Even the schools and universities are not spared. Instead of being spaces to exercise free thought, fine art, culture, music and science, our educational institutions are being leveraged to convey hyper-nationalism. The desire of a vice-chancellor to put an army tank in the university to “instil nationalism” is one example of this culture. Against this background, the sedition law has become a weapon to threaten anyone who speaks his mind or confronts the government.

Recently, several activists including the trade unionist and lawyer Sudha Bhardwaj and JNU students Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid were arrested under this law.  The matter is sub judice. But the law itself is questionable. As historian Romila Thapar says, “We have inherited a vast number of colonial laws that were meant for a different society. Today, we are not a colony. These laws need to be reconsidered now.”

Attempts to throttle free speech and dissent isn’t new. Former regimes have booked artists and activists under the same law. Leaders of the principal opposition – the Congress – have criticised the misuse of sedition law. Yet when in power, the Congress had misused the very same law against dissidents of the day.

Also read: On Gandhi Martyrdom Day, Delhi and Mumbai to Mobilise Against the Government

Let’s now revert to Gandhi and the court case in 1922.

Judge Broomfield, hearing the case, was empathetic and courteous. He admitted that in the eyes of millions of Indians, Gandhi was “a great patriot and great leader.” And even those who differed with him in politics considered Gandhi “a man of high ideals.” The Judge went on to say that he can’t forget that Gandhi had “constantly preached against violence” and “done much to prevent violence.”

Expressing helplessness, the judge said it was his duty to judge Gandhi “as a man subject to law.” Gandhi was given a six-year sentence, which by his own admission, was as light a punishment as any judge could deliver in the case. Thought sent to jail, the entire trial was a great political victory for him. He had rejuvenated the movement; instilled a new energy in the masses.

Gandhi’s rebellion against brute state power has been emulated across the world. Be it Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Martin Luther King or Jai Prakash Narayan – the leaders challenged the ruling power in ways similar to Gandhi. To some extent, they were inspired by the life and politics of Gandhi.

Interestingly, Gandhi was the theme of this year’s republic day celebrations. This is also the year the nation commemorates his 150th birth anniversary. Surely there can be no better tribute to Gandhi than scrapping the draconian sedition law in 2019.

Hridayesh Joshi is an independent journalist. He tweets at @hridayeshjoshi.