A JNU professor recently gave a lecture in which she reportedly declared that India is in illegal occupation of Kashmir. She is also reported to have stated that it was public knowledge that Kashmir is not a part of India and that the slogans calling for azadi were, therefore, justified. The professor allegedly told a crowd of students that India forcibly annexed autonomous regions such as Manipur and Nagaland and that 30-40 per cent of India is under military rule.
While the speech was provocative, I do not believe the law of sedition should be invoked. The archaic provisions punishing sedition under the IPC bear the stigma of a law used by a foreign power to suppress its subjects. It has far too much colonial baggage in the public mind, as nationalist heroes like Tilak and Gandhi were convicted under it. Today, to charge someone under this outdated law seems to confer on them a badge of honour. The state falls into this trap too often.
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Mahatma Gandhi mocked the law of sedition during his own trial in these words: “Section 124A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen… I know that some of the most loved of India’s patriots have been convicted under it. I consider it a privilege, therefore, to be charged under that section.” Gandhi’s trial took place in 1922. Even today, being slapped with this law is a passport to instant stardom.
That is not to say that there is no law that applies to speech advocating secession from the Union. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, punishes “unlawful activities” that include words that support cession of a part of the territory of India from the Union or question the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India.
Many of us born in the generations after Independence know little about the enormous challenge of stitching together a vast nation from disparate states, some far flung, others unwilling to join the grand union that became India. Of course, there were heavy prices to pay in forging one vast country and some excesses were committed in the process. It is of interest that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, whose name JNU bears, shaken by separatist movements in the newborn republic, made sure that constitutional amendments were made to rein in such tendencies. Stung by early judgments of the Supreme Court striking down government censorship, he wrote to the law minister, B.R. Ambedkar, to amend constitutional provisions in a manner that could help suppress subversive activities.
The first amendment in 1951 empowered the government to impose reasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech, among other grounds, “in the interests of the security of the state”. The 16th amendment in 1963 permitted the government to impose restrictions on free speech “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India”. This was an obvious response to the tense situation in parts of the country, including the demand for a separate Sikh homeland in the north and Dravida Nadu in the south. The amendment enabled the enactment of laws that made punishable acts supporting secession from the Union.
Of course, younger generations should know India’s history, warts and all. But there is nothing so unusual in the story of large nations, prosperous and thriving democracies, which took birth through force. Abraham Lincoln fought a horrific war at great human and material cost to keep the US united. Perhaps some day, the whole notion of the nation will evaporate. But till that happens, should teachers be demonising the state in the eyes of young citizens and project the very idea of India as a fraudulent or forced one? Is self-determination to translate into the balkanisation of the state that came into existence in 1947?
Many of us do not believe in forced patriotism but nonetheless acknowledge that as Indians we enjoy privileges as citizens of the world’s largest democracy. Those privileges are many, and include free speech and access to a large, incredibly diverse nation. There is some irony in the claim that the right to proclaim “azadi” is drawn from the Constitution. The Constitution that Ambedkar gave us is premised on the existence of a Union of states. Article 1 of the Constitution reads: “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of states”. So does the Preamble underscore the “unity and integrity” of India. The Constitution does not lend itself to selective reading. Ambedkar and “azadi” are simply not on the same page. The twain never did meet.