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More abused than used? Sedition law continues to raise questions

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The sedition charges against rapper Hard Kaur, a critic of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, is the latest in the long line of cases under the archaic law, most of which were later dismissed by courts.

In 1891, Jogendra Chunder Bose, editor of a vernacular weekly, Bangobasi, was charged for publishing what was termed as ‘seditious’ by the British rulers. This was the first instance on record in which the state initiated a trial for sedition. Since then, several individuals have been tried for alleged sedition, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi being some of the most popular among them.

Also read | Rapper Hard Kaur booked for defamatory remarks against Yogi Adityanath

According to history textbooks, the law was a powerful tool during the pre-Independence era to prevent the spread of nationalistic ideas and spirit, and hold accountable those preaching about independence from the then British government. The sedition law, under section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, is defined as “an offence that criminalises speech that is regarded to be disloyal to or threatening to the state.”

The year India adopted its Constitution, 1950, three judgments were passed in connection with the section, and in all the three cases, the high courts acquitted the accused.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru is believed to be the person to be credited for the acquittals, given his vehement opposition to the draconian law.

Also read | Maverick petitioners misusing sedition law to throttle dissent

“Now so far as I am concerned that particular section is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons, if you like, in any body of laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better,” the first Indian prime minister was quoted as saying by The Caravan.

However, in modern 21st century India, the use of the law has raised questions.

In recent times, the law has triggered a sharp debate between the BJP and the Congress, with the saffron party firmly favouring the law and the latter opposing it. The Congress had even promised scrapping of the 19th-century law if it came to power this year. It did not.

According to Sudha Ramalingam, senior advocate, Madras High Court, the sedition law is more abused than used. “The courts have repeatedly warned the government to not abuse this law, but at the same time, it is constitutionally valid,” she says.

Also read | Sedition case against 50 celebrities dropped; case ‘lacked substance’

She noted that the ruling dispensation always favours the sedition law while the opposition is against it, and it does not matter which party is in which role. This can only be accepted as a fact since the Congress, despite its recent opposition, had failed to scrap the law, although its former leaders, like Nehru, had in the past criticised it.

On February 12, 2016, Kanhaiya Kumar, former president of JNU students union and now a CPI leader, was charged with sedition. His former JNU mates Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid were also charged under the same section. They were accused of chanting anti-India slogans during an event on the university campus on February 9.

However, the most recent incident in which an individual was charged with this law is that of rapper Taran Kaur Dhillon, popularly known as Hard Kaur. She was booked on Thursday (June 20) for calling Adityanath an “orangerapeman (sic)” and for blaming Mohan Bhagwat for terrorist attacks in India.

Also read | We shall overcome: Sounds of protest blowin’ in the wind, again

In connection to Kaur’s case, the question remains as to whether it is truly sedition or a blatant abuse of the draconian law.

According to Ramalingam, such cases often amount to defamation only.

The draconian law has faced criticism from human rights watchdogs as well, especially the Amnesty International, which has appealed to the Indian government to repeal the law, saying it is being used to “silence those with divergent opinions.”

“The British used the sedition law to curb free speech during India’s independence struggle. Now the government is using it to silence and harass those with divergent opinions,” the Amnesty said.

It will certainly be wrong to think that the usage of the draconian law has reduced in the post-independence era. Akila RS, a Chennai-based lawyer, says, “In several instances, this law has been used against activists even after independence.”

Referring to the Binayak Sen case, she said although the law has been often used to bring stringent punishment to individuals, the high courts and the Supreme Court have often quashed such charges.

Sen, who was convicted by a sessions court on sedition charges brought by the Chhattisgarh government, was released after the Supreme Court trashed the order upheld by High Court.

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