Sedition Laws: India, at a Juncture, Trying to Save (Democratic) Face

by Neha Ansari

Speaking in 1951, Jawaharlal Nehru–India’s first Prime Minister–expressed concern about the country’s sedition law, a provision of the Indian Penal Code designed to punish individuals or organizations engaging in acts that were deemed to be against the interests of the state. Calling the law “highly objectionable and obnoxious,” Nehru warned that the sedition law, a holdover from the days of the British Raj, “should have no place…in any body of laws that we might pass.” Taking it a step further, he concluded that “The sooner we get rid of it the better.”

Today, the law not only still exists, but is readily used by the government to suppress freedom of speech. More worryingly, as the Central and state Governments battle a series of corruption scandals, the sedition law is desperately pulled out of the bag to silence government criticism and civic resistance. The continuing existence and exercise of India’s sedition laws have raised serious questions about whether democratic principles are being sufficiently upheld in the ‘world’s largest democracy.’ This law is archaic, pernicious and contradictory to democracy – and it needs to be repealed.

The sedition law, Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code 1860, was enacted right after the 1857 mutiny by Indian soldiers against British colonial rulers in an effort by the British Raj to contain and crush future resistance. Chapter VI of the Section describes sedition as: “Whoever by words, either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs, or by visible representation or otherwise, excites or attempts to excite feelings of disaffection to the Government established by law in India shall be punished with transportation for life or for any term…”

In the most recent and high-profile manifestation of the law, political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was charged with sedition for the “displeasing and obscene” content he had produced and posted on the web. The cartoons in question–titled “The Gang Rape of India”–illustrated a woman draped in the Indian flag being tugged at by a politician and a bureaucrat, the Indian Parliament drawn in the shape of a toilet seat, and Ajmal Kasab (the lone surviving terrorist of the November 2007 Mumbai attacks) drawn as a dog urinating on the Indian Constitution.

The images are disturbing. They are powerful. But are they seditious? No.

The use of the law to crush dissent is not limited to high-profile artists and dissidents. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch reported that at least 3,500 cases of sedition and “waging war” against the country were filed against villagers who were peacefully protesting the construction of a nuclear power plant near a fishing village in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. TheHindustan Times reports that the figure is closer to 7,000. The fishing community is against the construction of the Kudankulam power plant over fears of safety, especially after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown in Japan in March 2011. But instead of condemning the ludicrous charges, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh instead claimed that the protests were the handiwork of foreign, mostly American, environmental NGOs.

Meanwhile, Trivedi’s arrest caused public outrage among Indian civil society. Journalists reminded the country that Mahatma Gandhi, too, was charged with sedition by the British in 1922. The Indian Information and Broadcasting Minister, Ambika Soni, raised the sedition issue at a Group of Ministers (GoM) meeting, where it was decided that the Indian Home Ministry would be asked to review the antiquated clauses of Section 124A. Indian Finance Minister and the GoM chairman, P. Chidambaram, agree that the law needs to be revised so as to “differentiate between anti-India and anti-government protests.”

However, such revisions will not suffice. In 1962, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that people could be only charged with sedition if they incited violence, clearly distinguishing between violent hate speech and dissent. Despite the verdict, the sedition law has been applied indiscriminately, including against magazine editors, journalists, academics and intellectuals, including renowned writer Arundhati Roy, who was accused of sedition when she claimed that Kashmir is not an integral part of India. As past efforts to fine-tune or change the parameters of the law have failed, the latest statements by the government do not inspire confidence.

Trivedi’s arrest has sparked debate, causing some rumbling in the Cabinet. But the law of sedition needs to be repudiated, not revised. The review of the law has formally begun, but differentiating between anti-India and anti-government dissent is not the point. As Human Rights Watch South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly observed: “filing police cases against peaceful protesters happens in China, not in a rights-respecting democracy.”

If India wants to be taken seriously as the world’s largest democracy, it needs to start acting like it, and soon. Its people are getting impatient.

About the Author

Neha Ansari is a journalist from Karachi, Pakistan. She is a second-year MALD student at The Fletcher School. Previously, she worked as a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune, an English Pakistani daily newspaper and a partnered publication of the New York Times.

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