Repeal the Sedition Law

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Recent developments in Jawaharlal Nehru University have vitiated the political atmosphere, most particularly the alleged conspiracy of a section of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) at the behest of a local BJP legislator. The sinister twists and turns of politics is now a matter of concern.

Public opinion is generally against the retention of the “sedition law”. It has even been described as an anachronism. In the original draft of the constitution, the law on sedition was incorporated to curb the fundamental freedom of speech and expression in exceptional circumstances.

The provision was, however, dropped after a prolonged debate. K M Munshi (freedom fighter, educationist, politician) had advocated its deletion from Article 19 because “the party system which necessarily involves an advocacy of the replacement of one government by another is its only bulwark; the advocacy of a different system of government should be welcome because that gives vitality to a democracy.” T T Krishnamachari (former finance minister) supported Munshi, saying that in the USA a similar piece of legislation became “non-functional” in 1802.

Jawaharlal Nehru said: “Take again Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. Now so far as I am concerned, that particular section is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons. The sooner we get rid of it, the better.”

Alas, such words were never translated to action; they remained merely on paper. Section 124A continues to be used as a weapon of oppression by all governments. It is also surprising that the sedition law, which was formulated by the British, is still mentioned in the Indian constitution. In Britain, the law on sedition has been abolished primarily because the offence is defined in vague and uncertain terms. This offends the fundamental principles of criminal law. It refers to a particular historical context — sovereignty in the person of the King — which no longer holds. The law is archaic and must be done away with.

Another reason that has been cited in Britain is that while certain political views may be unreasonable or unpopular, they cannot be “criminalised”. This offends democratic values. Furthermore, the definition of sedition offends fundamental freedoms of speech and expression which are universally recognised. In practice, the law is used to silence political opposition or criticism of the government. This has a “chilling effect” on free speech, it was observed by the government while abrogating the law.

In the context of the turmoil in JNU, now is the right time for all parties to demand the repeal of the sedition law. Indeed, to reaffirm their bonafides, all parties should acknowledge the importance of public morality in politics, as emphasised by Ram Manohar Lohia, the socialist leader. He had said: “Political morality requires that there should be conformity between word and deed”. And this can only be ensured if the other parties match their speeches against sedition by formally passing a resolution in the Rajya Sabha (where they have a majority) to repeal the law. The BJP, which is in the opposition in the House of Elders, might well criticise the move as undemocratic and anti-people.

A recent resolution adopted by various unions, representing human rights and civil liberties, has demanded that the opposition parties must take the initiative. Can we expect them to match their words with deeds? If they do so, the BJP will stand exposed in the matter of civil liberties.

In fact, a similar petition, demanding repeal of the sedition law, had been sent to the Congress-led UPA Government in 2012. Unfortunately, it was not even been acknowledged. This begs the question: can the opposition now redeem its lapse and at the same time score a political point against the Modi government? Such a declaration by the opposition parties has become direly imperative.

 

 

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