Early this week, the Delhi Police filed a charge sheet against 10 people, including student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and Anirban Bhattacharya, in a sedition case for allegedly raising “anti-national slogans" during an event on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus in February 2016.
This fits a disturbing pattern. There have been many incidents in recent times where “misguided" people have been termed “anti-national". The sentiment could have been demonstrated through a slogan, a cheer, a statement, protest against a nuclear power project, or an innocuous post on social media. In all these cases, the state, across regimes, has filed charges of sedition. Of course, we know that sedition can’t be applied to instances of criticism of the government or a political functionary. More importantly, words alone are not enough for such a charge to be slapped. Incitement to violence is the most crucial ingredient of the offence of sedition.
What happened inside JNU three years ago might outrage many people, but it is a shame that the world’s largest democracy is so fragile, that it has to suppress the opinion of its youth and go to the extent of dictating to its premier educational institutions on how those within them should think and what they should think. In times like these, it seems like a sham to say that criticism of the state is the essence of democracy. In raking up the JNU issue after three years, the government is not shying away from playing politics around patriotism and nationality. Going through the numbers that the National Crime Records Bureau puts out every year, it is clear that despite the rise in sedition cases, convictions happen in barely a few. Even if these people are not convicted, the slapping of these charges is a way the governments over the years have been sending a strong message to its own people—obey or be ready to face consequences.
Before Independence, this charge was used by the British to suppress the freedom movement. Ironically, the same draconian law has become a tool that the country is now using against its own people. Instead of critically analysing why citizens, be they in Kashmir or Chhattisgarh or Bhima Koregaon, are driven to dissent, the government is using an iron-fist policy—with the sedition law playing a leading role—to completely shut out contrarian views.
The argument used against the scrapping of the sedition law is that the Supreme Court has repeatedly observed that the mere possibility of misuse of a provision does not per se invalidate the legislation. While the arguments are right in their own way, in a country where public discourse automatically reduces to binaries, it is hard to imagine navigating through the dark areas that lie between the actual law and its implementation on the ground. Till then, to uphold the idea of democracy that the founders of the Constitution envisioned, India should eschew the word sedition from its statute books and everyday vocabulary.