One man’s freedom fighter can, it is true, be another man’s terrorist, but surely charges of sedition are being bandied about in a very cavalier manner. How else can you explain arrests of fans cheering the Pakistan team, or shouting what has been described as ‘pro-Islam slogans’ in the Champion’s Trophy final as sedition? Sedition, after all, is about inciting violence against the state. Yet, according to The Indian Express, police in the BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh has arrested 15 people from Burhanpur district and three from Ujjain on assorted charges – the Burhanpur 15 face charges of sedition (Section 124A of IPC) and criminal conspiracy (Section 120B) while the Ujjain trio have been charged with committing “acts likely to promote communal disharmony and disturb public peace” under Section 153 A (b) for allegedly shouting slogans glorifying Islam after the Pakistan cricket team’s victory. Six others have been arrested in Congress-ruled Karnataka for similar celebrations; two have been charged with sedition and four with ‘hurting religious sentiments’.
Sadly, the use of sedition charges has become so widespread, the number of those arrested under sedition charges increased from 58 in 2014 to 73 in 2015. And this is when the Supreme Court said there was no case of sedition against Binayak Sen in 2011 or in the sedition charges brought against a folk singer for criticising Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa last year – the Bombay High Court was equally dismissive of the sedition charges against cartoonist Aseem Trivedi. Last year, in fact, SC reiterated the position when it said that sedition charges cannot be slapped merely for criticising the government. While doing so, SC brought attention to the guidelines framed in Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar in 1962. Kedar Nath Singh was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for a year on sedition charges by a trial court – he had referred to the CID as dogs and talked of elected ‘Congress goondas’ who would be liquidated. When dealing with whether the sedition charge (Section 124A of IPC) was consistent with Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech, SC ruled “a very strong speech or … very vigorous words … very strong criticism … of Government …in our opinion, such words written or spoken would be outside the scope of the section”. The only qualification, SC said, was “so long as he does not incite people to violence against the Government or … with the intention of creating public disorder”. It is only when, it ruled, “the words, written or spoken, etc. which have the pernicious tendency or intention of creating public disorder or disturbance of law” that they could be termed seditious.
Given how terms like ‘pernicious tendency’ or ‘intention of creating public disorder or disturbance of law’ are so ambiguous and open to creative interpretation by any government or police force, it is high time India moved to strike this colonial relic from the statute book. Keep in mind that when sedition charges are used to crush anyone making statements – or indulging in actions like cheering a Pakistani cricket team – against the government, it only gives credence to the view that the government is intolerant. If only for that reason, the sedition law must be junked.