Interpreting Section 124 (a) in the context of JNU students’ protest

The history of prosecution success of sedition law in India has been rather mixed and its application in the case of JNU students too raises uncomfortable questions

The arrest of seven students of JNU and its president on February 10 for allegedly shouting anti-India slogans under section 124 (a) has sparked a debate whether this section is needed in a modern democratic society. The constitution of India does not define the word sedition.  Section 124 (a) of the Indian Penal Code(IPC) defines the defines the offence of ‘Sedition’ as below:

Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”

The sedition law is a colonial hangover (like many other archaic laws). Interestingly, it is linked to the Wahhabi movement in India. Although the IPC was brought into force in 1860 (after the bloody 1857 revolt or the first war of independence), this section was introduced only in 1870. Reason being that our colonial masters were drawing their lessons after fighting the Wahhabi rebels. The movement was ruthlessly put down by the then British government.

During the freedom struggle of India, the British Raj used this law against many freedom fighters, notable among them being Annie Besant, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and Mahatma Gandhi. This in no way condones the allegedly anti-national slogans raised by the JNU students, one of them being  desh ki barbadi (destruction of the country) and if proven, action needs to be taken.  At the time of writing, the case is still under investigation by the Delhi Police.

The successful prosecution under this section has been very patchy in independent India. Some of the personalities against whom this section was applied but could not be prosecuted are Maneka Gandhi, Arundhati Roy, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, and Binayak Sen. In a well known case, 67 Kashmiri students were booked under this act by the UP government in 2014 when they cheered for Pakistan in an Asia Cup match against India. Again, this could be applied subjectively. If in a match between India vs Australia, you cheer for Australia, it may not be termed sedition because the relations between the two countries are not by any stretch of imagination, inimical. The charges were dropped later on due to intervention by Omar Abdullah, the then Chief Minister of Kashmir.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly cautioned that even words indicating disaffection against the state will not constitute the offence, unless there is a call for violence or a pernicious tendency to create public disorder. In this specific case, reportedly the JNU students union had even dissociated itself from the views of the group of students who had organised the ill conceived anniversary of Afzal Guru’s hanging.

Even other political parties have resorted to use this section selectively at various times. Taking a non-partisan approach, the time has come to genuinely debate whether we need this, almost 70 years after independence.

 

Guru Aiyar is a Research Scholar with Takshashila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar.

Featured Image: Really old law books by umjanedoan, licensed from creativecommons.org

 

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