Chief Justice of India (CJI) N V Ramana while hearing a petition filed by retired Army General SG Vombatkere, asked why a colonial law used against Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak continued to survive in the law book after 75 years of independence. The CJI observed the same regarding the misuse of sedition law by successive governments. While addressing Attorney General K K Venugopal and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta who represented Central Government, he observed, ’’The use of sedition is like giving a sword to the carpenter to cut a piece of wood and he uses it to cut the entire forest itself.”
The CJI’s oral observation in an open court takes a significant note amid rising public denouncement of central and state law enforcement agencies using the sedition law to silence dissent, muffle free expression and for denying bail to incarcerated activists, journalists, students and civil society members. A number of petitions have been filed highlighting the “chilling effect” sedition has on the fundamental right of free speech. The CJI’s remarks have also opened the floor for debate and introspection.
Sedition is a heinous crime. It is severe treachery, a sacrilege to the institution of the state, the very state that provides the basis for an orderly, organized and peaceful society. No other organization is as capable as the state to retain order in society. Had there been no state, there would have been chaos all over, almost like the animal kingdom.
The state puts in place an organized system of administration in order to regulate human behaviour that would have otherwise gone astray and created mayhem all around. The state is the only institution that has been endowed with ‘sovereignty,’ which means absolute power of the state within its definite territory. This power has been given for the larger interest of a peaceful society.
The privileges of a state as an institution is perhaps unparalleled on earth. Anything that is against the state is a sacrilege. If dishonoring God is ‘blasphemy,’’ dishonoring the state is ‘sedition.’ It is in this sense state’s position is next to God as the fountainhead of justice. Hegel had rightly said,’ the state is the march of God on Earth.”
The state is an institution of institutions. As such state has to be venerated for giving its citizenry a peaceful, orderly and dignified life. In this sense, sedition is a heinous crime. A sedition law should exist and people convicted of sedition should be punished. How can one be treacherous towards the state they live in? How can one be ungrateful for all the benefits provided by the state?
However, one has to understand the difference between the state and the Government to understand sedition. A state is an institution and the Government is a mere agent. The state is perpetual. It must exist in continuity to perpetuate law and order. As an institution, it performs in a systematic way through laid down rules and procedures. However, as a mere agent, the government may constitute a group of people; its shape, size and form might vary. As a group of people, the government is separate from the state and must not be given unfettered power. One might like a government or hate, that does not constitute treachery towards the state.
The present sedition law of India confuses the state and the government. The texts of the enacted law read, “whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representations, or otherwise, brings 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 life), to which fine may be added, or with fine.”
The texts clearly point out that the sedition law attempts to prevent the criticism of the government. Enacted in 1860, the sedition law was a tool to suppress any form of dissent by the British subjects in India. All injustices were carried out by the government under the garb of law and order. Whenever the conscious Indians protested, they were booked under the sedition law.
Apart from Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad and V D Savarkargreat freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak were booked under sedition law. In 1922, Gandhi was arrested on charges of sedition in Bombay for taking part in protests against the colonial government. He was sentenced to six years of imprisonment, although released after two years on health grounds. Tilak was tried for sedition several times. In 1897, he was charged with sedition for mere writing an article criticizing the government in his publication ‘Kesari’.
Nehru was arrested under sedition for merely addressing the peasants of Allahahabad and supporting the no-tax campaign against the British government.
In post-independent India also, the said law has been misused time and again to suppress criticism against the government. During the recent farmers’ protest against the newly enacted farm laws, hundreds of protesters were booked under sedition charges. Peasant leader Akhil Gogoi was charged with sedition. During the anti-CAA protests, thousands of protesters were booked under sedition in different states.
The fact becomes clear that sedition charges do not require any actual, violent threat to the state. Any ideological opponent or peaceful protest can be suppressed under the pretext of sedition. In fact, most cases do not merit sedition in the real sense of the term and the accused are acquitted by the court of law.
Several activists, artists and cartoonists have been harassed under the charges of sedition by the governments of the time. One would remember the farcical arrest of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in 2012 by the Maharashtra police simply because he published a cartoon satiring the government on rampant corruption.
It is not about this government or that government. As long as the law is there, it will be misused by every government that comes to power. The victim will be the citizenry and freedom of expression. The ultimate casualty will be the democratic culture of the nation. When a mere expression leads to sedition, the citizenry would prefer to keep mum rather than speak up. It will be a travesty of justice. Before it is too late, the sedition law should be revisited, revised or repealed if needs be. It is necessary for a vibrant society.