Sedition: ‘The highest duty of a citizen’
Sedition: the attempt “to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India”, a crime under Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code, a provision introduced by the British colonial government in 1860.
The only revisions to this colonial legal provision since its passing have been over the years, to remove anachronistic terms like “Her Majesty”, “the Crown Representative”, “British India”, “British Burma” and “Transportation for life or any shorter term”.
But it seems “Disaffection towards the government”, the archaic usage notwithstanding, is a timeless crime. Section 124A, therefore, these few cosmetic changes apart, has remained unchanged for the last 150 years.
(That’s what we mean when we say we are an ancient civilization.)
In 1922 Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Shankarlal Ghelabhai Banker, editor, and printer/publisher respectively of Young India, were tried under this section before the District and Sessions Judge, Ahmedabad.
Pleading guilty to the charge, Gandhi said:
“I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court the fact that to preach disaffection towards the existing system of Government has become almost a passion with me…” Sedition, said Gandhi, “in law is a deliberate crime”, but it “appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.”
Today, almost a hundred years later, the government of “the world’s largest democracy” threatens to invoke this exact same colonial provision instituted to curb resistance to foreign rule, against a writer whose bright integrity has never faltered, and whose powerful voice has been consistently raised against injustice. Arundhati Roy is tragically right, we can but pity ourselves, citizens (so-called) of a nation “that has to silence its writers for speaking their minds… that needs to jail those who ask for justice, while communal killers, mass murderers, corporate scamsters, looters, rapists, and those who prey on the poorest of the poor, roam free.”
Disaffection means “the absence or alienation of affection or goodwill; estrangement”. Does it look like there is a whole lot of goodwill towards the Government of India in Kashmir, which Roy has to work hard towards alienating? All over the North-East and Kashmir, reeling under the military jackboot of the draconian AFSPA, the Government of India is nothing but an occupying army, a spontaneous disaffection generator.
A young Manipuri lecturer in Delhi University tells of sitting at a roadside dhaba in Imphal with a few friends, when a uniformed Indian Army officer passing by, stopped. Stand up, he barked. Sing the national anthem. They had barely begun, when he slapped one of them. Your accent is wrong, he said. Do it again. They did it again.
No isolated incident this, but simply the routine humiliation of an occupied people. The Indian Nation rampant in all its pride and glory, generating affection.
“Sedition” and “contempt of court” have no place in a modern democracy. No justification whatsoever for provisions that criminalize and silence dissent, critique and ethical challenges to the dominant order. These provisions are unconstitutional, anti-democratic and utterly intolerable.
Sedition is no longer a criminal offence in Uganda after a recent High Court ruling, and the provision is being challenged in Malawi and also in Australia. (The last person prosecuted under Australia’s sedition laws was Brian Cooper, a patrol officer in Papua New Guinea, then under Australian colonial rule. He was charged and convicted in 1960 because “he advisedly spoke and published seditious words” when urging “the natives” to demand PNG’s independence from Australia.)
If disaffection from the government is a crime, who would remain out of jail? Kashmiris, all of the North-East, populations dislocated by dams, corporations, Commonwealth Games, SEZ’s, tribal people in Niyamgiri, Chhattisgarh, farmers in Raigarh, Maoists…
The people, said Bertold Brecht, have lost the confidence of the government.
Therefore the government has decided to dissolve the people, and elect another.