When Kanhaiya Kumar of Jawaharlal Nehru University was arrested on the charges of sedition on 13th February 2016, JNU stood in solidarity with him, knowing full well that the charges were made up. According to the authorities, Kumar was arrested because he was shouting anti-India slogans while he was protesting the hanging of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru. Kumar denied all these charges stating that he never said anything that compromised India’s integrity. His family stated that Kumar was being harassed for speaking out against Hindutva politics.
So what does sedition mean? And what are its implications in the Indian context?
The dictionary meaning of sedition is to conduct a speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch. Article 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with sedition, says that whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by sign, or visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India shall be punished with imprisonment for three years, to which may be added fine. The maximum punishment for Sedition is life imprisonment.
When the Constitution of India was first written, sedition was originally included in the restrictions clause of the free speech right. It was originally drafted by Thomas Macaulay. But it was later removed because both the left and the right in the constituent assembly debates vociferously opposed it. Then why is it that is still remains? Some scholars argue that it remained as a memorial of the Partition, as the Emergency Laws in the Constitution were a constant reminder of the aftermath of a violent partition.
If one looks at the offences against the State in Chapter 5 of the Indian Penal Code, sedition is the only speech offence in the section of offences along with waging war against the State, collecting arms for waging a war against the State, concealing with intent to facilitate design to wage war, attacking the President, Governor, etc with intent to compel or restrain the exercise of any lawful power and many more. These are very serious offences, and including sedition in the list, which is merely a form of speech, seems inequitable.
In a lot of cases of sedition that were filed with the Indian courts like Kedarnath Singh vs. the State of Bihar, P Alavi vs. the State of Kerala, Gurjatinder Pal vs. the State of Punjab and the recent Kanhaiya Kumar fiasco, the case ended with an acquittal. In these cases, section 124A was declared unconstitutional because there was no actual proof of an incitement of violence or of that violence being carried out, and on the grounds of freedom of speech and expression. In 2014, a group of Kashmiri students were charged with sedition for supporting Pakistan in an India-Pakistan match.
As for my personal opinion, I think it is time India drops this law from the Constitution. If we are not allowing the citizens of the country to be honest critiques of the government and its actions, and are threatening them for expressing concerns about different government policies, while proudly calling India a democracy, we are slowly moving towards fascism. As long as this “seditious speech” does not lead to violence, there is absolutely no justification for arresting the parties involved. We should be able to exercise our freedom of speech without having to curb it to fit what the government thinks is acceptable.
At a time when political campaigning is at its peak with General Elections coming up, leading political parties and their members can easily use the sedition law to silence anyone who questions them. The accused may not end up in prison for the long haul, but will be harassed enough to scare off any other citizens who might have similar questions. It is thus important for everyone to understand the law and at the same time critically examine it altogether.