by Ratnakar Tripathy
Just as the literal meaning of the word ‘sedition’ suggests it is indeed a serious charge not to be used lightly in any kind of context. But anyone familiar with the social media in India knows how frequently the term is being used these days to typify and label those with dissimilar views. Of course, the moment the label ‘sedition’ or anti-national is used, any kind of dialogue or conversation must come to an end immediately. But social media apart, when a government begins to use it frequently as a legal charge and not just rhetoric, matters indeed take a different and dangerous turn, alarming all those citizens who wish to see the Indian democracy deepen day by day instead of being eroded and diluted by a ruling regime. One also begins to wonder who within the government is taking these legal decisions and using sedition like loose change on a nearly daily basis and whether it reflects the core policies of the government. That these legal cases are not an aberration is however fairly clear now as the frequency of such as charge has lately been on the rise.
Here are the figures indicating the rise - going by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report from 2014, altogether 47 sedition cases were reported from nine Indian states in 2014. Quite a few among these did not involve violence or incitement to violence, a pre-requisite for a sedition charge. According to the NCRB figures, a total of 58 people were arrested in connection with these cases, but the government managed only one conviction. One of course has to understand the travails an individual must go through defending oneself against the mighty state, with all its resources and the grinding determination that comes with it.
This is why the Indian Supreme Court’s recent ruling over the matter is very welcome. It seems we are increasingly needing the Supreme Court’s rulings to prevent arbitrary definitions imposed on words and concepts that lie at the very core of any democracy. As this report informs us, the Supreme Court felt the need to ‘clarify’ that protest and criticism of the government, however severe cannot be equated with sedition. Further, the highest body posited that ‘the acts must be intended to have the "effect of subverting the government" by violent means, and the acts must be intended to create disorder or disturbance of public peace and order by resort to violence and must incite violence.’ Otherwise, the Court ruled criticism of a government does not even amount to defamation, forget sedition! But what is worrying here is that the Indian democracy needs clarification of the sort made by the Supreme Court, that an average educated Indian already possessed till yesterday. Thanks to a lawyer and a vigilant citizen like Prashant Bhushan that we are getting back our good old ‘clarity’. Bhushan in his plea cited the examples of sedition charges being slapped on agitators protesting against Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project and cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, which are just some of the instances of misuse of the legal provision. Only last month Bhushan’s NGO ‘Common Cause’ had moved the court after Amnesty International India was booked on a charge of sedition on 16 August after a deonstration against the alleged atrocities of the Indian government in Kashmir. Interestingly, The Supreme Court also asked all authorities to stick to the guidelines laid down by a Constitution bench 54 years ago while invoking the sedition law. The five-judge bench had ruled in 1962 that the sedition law could be activated only if "violence and public disorder" had been incited.
Some of the highlights of the judgement are as follows:
‘Any written or spoken words that have implicit in them the idea of subverting the government by violent means will be punishable.
• But strong words used to express disapprobation (strong disapproval) of government measures, with a view to their improvement or alteration by lawful means, would not come within the section.
• Comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of the actions of the government without exciting those feelings that generate the inclination to cause public disorder by acts of violence will not be penal.
• Disloyalty to the government is not the same thing as commenting in strong terms on the measures or acts of the government or its agencies so as to ameliorate the condition of the people or to secure the cancellation or alteration of those acts or measures by lawful means.
• Freedom has to be guarded against becoming a licence for vilification and condemnation of the government established by law in words that incite violence or have the tendency to create public disorder.
• A citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the government or its measures, by way of criticism or comment, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder.’
Hopefully, while the citizens have a fairly lucid definition of sedition in their heads, the government will now correct its views on the matter and follow the straight path of democracy instead of repeated attempts at corrrosive interpretations of the good old rules and precedents.