The recent event of a school in Karnataka where sedition charges were slapped against the principal for organising an event against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has outlandishly caught the public imagination. Prior to that, we saw a brazen invocation of this colonial era law against many activists and scholars including Sharjeel Imam, Akhil Gogoi and against many people in Mumbai last week who dared to raise legitimate concerns against the govt. Since the recent past, the invocation of this extra-ordinary law has become more frequent in India, specifically targeted against the minority and marginalized groups.
Sedition, a stringent law, which India inherited as a colonial legacy has been always used to suppress those dissenting voices who dare to dream differently. Time and again, it has been arbitrarily invoked by different regimes to stifle upon the freedoms and rights of their own citizens. Sedition was first introduced by the British in Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 1870 when the fears of a possible uprising plagued the colonial authorities. After its independence, the members of the Indian drafting committee conformed to much of this rule book as a guide to build and cherish the dream of a ‘democratic republic’. There have been numerous movements in India demanding that this law be repudiated. There has been a spell of debates condemning that such harsh legislations are antithetical to the democratic spirit which we claim to cherish. However, despite demands to scrap it, the law has hitherto consolidated its position even more in the statutes and public discourses. Since the fall twentieth century, the sedition along with several extraordinary laws have been ‘emotively’ used in India against the dissenting voices to maintain the ‘national security and public order’.
Apart from some high-profile cases which regularly flash on our tv screens vilifying several students and activists, sedition law has been mostly used against the downtrodden sections like Adivasis who live in the hinterlands with little outreach. For instance, hundreds of poor Adivasis were implicated recently in Jharkhand under seditious charges only for standing against and resisting the privatization and capitalistic control of their spaces. However, far from the media limelight, little is known about the fate of those poor tribal groups. In yet another case, sedition charges were levelled against an entire village in Kundankulam, for resisting the state’s intrusion to establish a nuclear power plant there.
The sedition law with time has evolved as a tool to curb free speech and tame voices against the government. Even if we look at data of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the convictions in sedition cases are rare. It is rather ironical that the Britishers, who had introduced this law in India couldn’t continue it back home, the United Kingdom deleted the sedition libel through the Coroners and Justice Act in 2009. The move was followed by several other countries who either removed the whole legislation from their law books or renamed it to deal with specific crimes. For Instance, in Australia, where after the recommendations of Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) the term sedition was removed and replaced with references to ‘urging violence offences’.
In India however the terms like ‘disaffection’ which is rather vaguely interpreted have been arbitrarily interpreted under Section 124A to frame any individual. Indian Penal Code and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) already have provisions that penalize any act harming and disrupting the ‘public order’ or potentially threatening to “overthrowing the government with violence and illegal means”. In the backdrop of such regulations, claims of democratic freedoms and liberal rights fall flat to negotiate between the monopolistic state and the liberties emanating therein.
Chakka jam is not seditious
Coming to the recent case of Sharjeel Imam, and the callousness which the media, academia and civil society has exhibited, it becomes important to understand that on the strict examination of what Sharjeel spoke, there is nothing which puts the integrity and sovereignty of the country at stake. The transcript of his speech invalidates every claim which the BJP leaders and media outlets have been carrying throughout. It has been highlighted by several reports now that what Sharjeel asked for was merely a ‘Chakka-Jam’ a blockade, which is not anyway an unknown way of protest in the pre- and post-colonial India. A vibrant polity never stifles upon the democratic aspirations of its people. We have seen people not agreeing over hunger strikes as a way of protest. Similar disagreements can be held against chakka jam which Imam asked for; however, it essentially raises a normative claim which can’t be brushed under the carpet. Not voicing against this executive intrusion means losing much of what the previous generations tirelessly fought for.
Any ideological imagination which doesn’t allow people to express their anxieties could be anything but not democratic. Democracy is a dialogical process, a daily consensus which tolerates the freedom of expression no matter what medium is appealed to. History bears witness to the fact that there have been several occasions when Chakka Jam has been used as a medium of protest by several dissenting groups. Apart from the famous Blockade by ‘Amarnath Shrine Sangharsh Samiti’ in 2008 in Jammu and Kashmir, there have been instances when state govts also resorted to similar means without inviting any judicial reprisal. The left front govt led by Jyoti Basu in 1979 clamped an economic blockade on the Marichjhapi island in West Bengal. The blockade cut down the whole supply of goods including the basic essentials like food and water. The reports of starvation and diseases floated across, until the Calcutta High Court directed the govt to lift the blockade.
Laws like sedition have been a blot on the edifice of democratic structures throughout, leaving them vaguely defined into the statues and law books ensures executive overreach thus deteriorating the situation even further.