The extraordinary PTI photograph of 19-year-old Amulya Leona which travelled all over social media doesn’t really belong on a newspaper of HTML page. It belongs in a European museum, alongside Fra Angelico and Andrea del Sarto. Beset by two policemen — one resolute, rampant, the other frightened, couchant — and a man amazed, regardant, along with the principal accused holding up her finger for silence, it recalls the era of painting in Italy in which every person depicted a fragment of a story, which their expressions wrote on the canvas. The tableau recalls the tribulation and triumph of saints.
Sedition, which is the subject of the photograph, is the secular descendant of the European tradition of persecuting well-intentioned people who oppose some element of the social order, and thereby guaranteeing them sainthood. Since the law of sedition, a relic of the colonial era, is liberally misused in India, discussion on the subject is generally limited to it. But it is a political construct rather than a legal one, and has mutated repeatedly. The term is descended, via Old French, from the Latin se-, which is a negative prefix like the English un-, hitched with itionem, from the root ire — to go. To part ways from the mainstream is the general meaning, and in the 14th century implied a violent factional contest. The sense of rebellion appeared in the 16th century, and the Oxford English Dictionary reports it to be rare now. Somewhere on the way, sedition became pseudo-etymologically confused with seduction, and picked up a new payload of sinfulness. Also, a sermon preached in 1830 in the village of Bradfield, Berkshire, by the Rev JF Moor, MA, titled “The Duty of Submission to Civil Authority”, presented civil disobedience as a sin. The present sense of inciting violence against constituted government by speech acts developed only in the 19th century —precisely the period when the East India Company gained political authority in India, lost it in 1857 and real, honest-to-god empire took over. Empires need sedition law to keep everyone in their place.
The Westminster Gazette, a liberal, clubby sort of publication which had the honour to help discover talents like Saki, DH Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield and Raymond Chandler, provides numerous examples from coverage of events in India in the difficult transitional period. In 1898, the Gazette published: “A correspondent at Madras telegraphs today that a joint public meeting of Hindoos and Mohammedans was held there…to protest against the sedition-law amendments.” Ten years later, on July 28, 1908, it reported on “the trial of some sedition-monger in India”. And in 1907, it spoke of “The Maharajahs…dissociating themselves from what is described as the campaign of rancour…pursued by the seditionists.” The period in question falls between the Delhi durbars of 1903 and 1911, in which imperial royalty took the measure of Indian royalty, and permanently settled power equations.
In England, sedition appears to have gained prominence scant years after the foundations of the empire were laid by the embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to Jahangir’s court. In 1664, An Exact Narrative of the Tryal and Condemnation of John Twyn was published “By Authority”. The depersonalised byline is much like the “By Order” which signs off so much signage in India. Twyn, a publisher, was tried at the Old Bailey along with the bookseller Thomas Brewster, the printer Simon Dover and the bookbinder Nathan Brooks. He was indicted for compassing and imagining the king’s death, and the overt act laid in the indictment was, “the printing of a seditious, poisonous and scandalous book entitled; ‘A Treatise of the execution of justice, wherein is clearly proved that the execution of judgment and justice is as well the people’s as the magistrate’s duty, and if the magistrates pervert judgment, the people are bound by the law of God to execute judgment without them, and upon them’.” That thundering title sealed his fate, and he was sent to the hereafter with his head on a pike, according to family.twinn.co.uk.
It is a disgrace that India retains sedition law on the statute books so many decades after the sun set on the empire. But if it is any comfort, the other big democracy also instituted a sedition act in 1918. But that was done specifically to protect US involvement in World War I, and was intended to contain socialists, pacifists and other anti-war activists who impeded the war effort. Besides, it was repealed in 1920, being in violation of the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. As far as we know, India is not at war and does not intend to be so engaged, and some kid shouting “Pakistan zindabad” offers no strategic risk at all. We retain the sedition law only because governments like to use it as a universal specific for talkativeness.
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