Repeal the Law of Sedition or Forget about Freedom of Expression
February 18, 2016
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Any country which carries a law of sedition on its statute books has no right to claim that its citizens possess the right to freedom of expression. That is why Britain has repealed it though it had once imposed it upon us. But then, a foreign government needs it to prevent the enslaved from forming a democratic Republic. We are still carrying it, not because it’s a colonial legacy but because it suits the temperament of our governance. Successive governments in India in the last six decades have proved that freedom of expression is not something they genuinely believe in. They barely tolerate it in the name of democracy and the Constitution. They are ready to seize upon any excuse to curb it.
The imposition of Emergency banning all freedom of expression was an extreme step, but at least it was an overt one. We knew we were not allowed to express ourselves freely. The law of sedition is more insidious, hence more dangerous. It provides the government with covert means for creating Emergency like situations and we don't when and where they would suddenly crop up. Measures of extreme repression can be taken by the government by charging any transgression or show of dissent as seditious. The JNUSU President Kanhaiya is not the first one to be charged with sedition for allegedly raising anti-government slogans or inciting people to do so. Even though the law of sedition is expressly directed against violent action and not mere sloganeering, no government has respected this stipulation.
Moreover, each government has acted time and again under the presumption that government and Nation were synonymous, which they most certainly are not. The Nation consists of people whom the government merely represents, for a prescribed period of time. The problem is that when the government is by inclination disposed towards curtailing the free flow of expression, it is ready to seize upon any excuse to do so. The law of sedition makes it easy to club anti-government utterances together with anti-national intentions. Intention is all that can be seen in expressions of dissent, however violently phrased they may be. Verbal violence can be construed as criminal only if it is proven to lead to acts of actual physical violence, not because someone in government is pleased to think it might do so at some future date. A state which is ready to wreak havoc upon autonomous Institutions of Higher Learning through police action against the scholars there could itself be held guilty of inciting violence. Inasmuch as violation of the autonomy of such Institutions is violation of democracy, can it not fairly be termed anti national? Our Constitution guarantees us a democracy. If to violate it and hence the Constitution is not anti-national, then we need to rethink the meaning of the word Nation.
Mridula Garg is a distinguished Hindi writer and columnist.
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