Looking at Sedition in India From Outside

Rajashree Ghosh
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By Rajashree Ghosh
INDIA New England Columnist

BOSTON–Deep concern and dismay – are some of the emotions shared among friends who reside outside of India and looking in from far. Student agitation, farmers’ uprising, caste and religious strife are permeating news publications about India.

Rajashree Ghosh
Rajashree Ghosh

Most times as non-resident Indians, we pride ourselves and celebrate the educational and economic accomplishments of immigrants and South Asians to the economy. And yet these are trying times with news that lawyers in India can and have wielded weapons against women and men, young being charged with “sedition” – all these events redefine nationalism and belonging. In my prior post to this column, I ruminated on the struggles of the young and now as the reports and opinion pages flood the media I am flummoxed and saddened by the bleakness presenting itself.

So I sought recourse to more reading. India inherited the law on sedition from the colonial era. The British colonial government used the sedition law to suppress nationalist dissent in the subcontinent during the 19th and early 20th centuries. With Macaulay drafting one of the earliest versions of the Indian Penal Code, applied the law of sedition on freedom fighters like Gandhi and Tilak.

After some revisions (and removal of words such as “British India” and “Her Majesty”) it now reads ” Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, 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 [imprisonment for life], to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.” Some of the words such as “disaffection” is to include disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.

Mahatma Gandhi who was a victim of this law had said, “affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by the law. If one has no affection for a person, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence.” With unbridled criticism he went on to describe the law as “the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.”

Those were Victorian times and there have been revisions since. Historically the law survived many contestations. References to Kedar Nath Singh case is made where the Supreme Court made it clear that allegedly seditious speech and expression may be punished only if the speech is an ‘incitement’ to ‘violence’, or ‘public disorder’. In addition, as I sifted through my reading, that advocating revolution, or advocating violent overthrow of the State, does not amount to sedition, unless there is incitement to violence, and more importantly, the incitement is to ‘imminent’ violence.

In the most recent events, the world’s eyes are on India. An op-ed in the New York Times reports that what happened on campus in the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University is unclear but students present said that there were slogans raised against casteism and also to protest the execution of a militant responsible for several deaths in India. The students are behind bars and their fate remains undetermined. The Amnesty International states that this represents a “disdain for the right to freedom of expression.” They continue to say that arresting students under a colonial era law and failing to prevent lawyers from attacking students, the Delhi Police has shown a disregard for the constitutionally established rights of citizens.

The frenzy surrounding these events, often fanned by sections in the media, push aside the fact that universities are spaces where the young find their political voice, develop passion for an ideology, and view the larger picture beyond academics. Some continue to push forth with their ideas and others outgrow and go onto careers which take them away from politics. And this is true around the world. The Unites States has witnessed protests against Vietnam war and sit-ins advocating civil rights and the more recent marches and rallies advancing issues ranging from LGBTQ, #Black Lives Matter and financial reform. Last year Chile witnessed students protesting for educational reform and another example from Myanmar where students led an agitation to express their concern over military presence in the university in Yangon. These protests are effective ways of engaging officials about the value of education and more.

Where does that leave us? We could blame as much as we can on the British. However Britain has abolished sedition as a criminal offence in 2009 as it was considered to be a relic of an era where freedom of expression was not considered a right as it is now. Sedition was abolished through the Coroners and Justice Act, 2009, under Gordon Brown’s Labour government. Three offences were abolished: the offences of sedition and seditious libel; the offence of defamatory libel; and the offence of obscene libel.

The UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a state party, has expressed concern regarding laws on issues such as disrespect for flags and symbols.

At this point we may ask ourselves, if we have in any way failed to protect the youth from political interference that stifles their right to dissent and free speech. These rights are the corner stone of the democracy that India is. These events certainly brought to light, that there is an undercurrent of discontent and draws our attention to the political issues. But may be we could expand our horizons beyond the right and left and work towards consolidating view-points and engaging in conversations. Stepping aside from our respective positions on the political spectrum, it may be worth the while to let the youth flourish – in ideologies, academics and political careers. The nation’s future is in their hands.

(Rajashree Ghosh is a Resident Scholar, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University.)



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