regular-article-logo Sunday, 16 June 2024

Editorial: Lawless use

'Sedition' has turned into a weapon against free speech and dissent

The Editorial Board Published 06.04.22, 12:11 AM
Representational image

Representational image Shutterstock

The British may have used the law against sedition to punish rebellious Indian subjects. But why should an independent democracy with an elected government find use for it? Yet in spite of the objections to it, Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code has persisted through the years, although it has never been applied so frequently as under the Narendra Modi-led regime. Nowadays it is whipped out to penalize criticism of the government or expressions of support for anything to which Mr Modi and his men are hostile. Three Kashmiri students studying in Agra, who were arrested for sedition, were given bail by the Allahabad High Court. They were supposed to have been disloyal to the country when they celebrated Pakistan’s victory over India in a Twenty20 cricket match. They were also charged with cyber-terrorism for sending celebratory messages on WhatsApp. Sports rivalries fall into the category of nationalism for Mr Modi’s government. But the Allahabad High Court reportedly said that India’s unity was not made of bamboo reeds that it would bend in the winds of empty slogans. This underlined the incongruity between the grave and the trivial. India’s strength lay in its ideals and constitutional values, as the court pointed out; its unity or security could not be threatened by diverse opinions.

The misuse of the sedition law creates fear, although the government wielding it may be suspected of insecurity. That the high court dealt with the bail issue was because the Agra District Bar Association had decided not to plead the three students’ case. This suggests both fear and the need to exhibit a spurious loyalty — evidently to the government. A law that applies in rare cases where the security and sovereignty of the country are threatened has turned into a weapon against free speech and dissent. That it should be over-active during the anti-citizenship laws protests, or after events such as Hathras suggests that all criticism is being bulldozed into compliance. Since the intention is to silence dissent and produce fear, conviction rates are abysmally low in spite of the dramatic increase in sedition charges between 2014 and 2019. But all that is needed to overcome the fear of a misapplied law is to recall the high court’s evocation of a sense of proportion and its confidence in India’s unshakeable unity.

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