The charge of “sedition” comes in handy when the state leans on half-a-dozen sections of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and arrests its political opponents, thus equating the right of criticism under democracy to treason. It is blatant but the law is there — so why not use it to silence the right to criticism under democracy? Somebody in Shahdara, Lahore, accused Prime Minister Imran Khan’s arch-opponent Nawaz Sharif of “using criminal speeches from London on the electronic and social media” during the All Parties Conference, and filed an FIR at the local police station.
To clinch the argument, the plaintiff added that UK-based Sharif, in his speeches, had supported “the policies of India”. He was buttressed by Khan’s “information advisers” saying “Indians are laughing at us” because of Nawaz Sharif’s treasonous allegations. To add more fire, the FIR accused Sharif and his partymen of defaming Pakistan’s high courts and the armed forces “in front of the international community”. For good measure, he added the names of 40 of Nawaz Sharif’s party in his plaint, thus exposing them to the punishment of “death or lifetime imprisonment” under the High Treason (Punishment) Act, 1973.
The man who brought the charges was Badar Rasheed. After pictures of him appeared together with Punjab Governor Muhammad Sarwar, it became known that he was president of PTI’s youth wing. Prime Minister Khan “disapproved” of the “treason case” and his partymen thereafter began to dissociate the party from Rasheed. Lawyers came on TV denouncing the law itself, saying it was a dubious legacy of British Raj that Pakistan and India had retained to punish political opponents.
The British had actually made the law to beat down Indian resistance to the Raj. Famous essayist Lord Macaulay wrote up the anti-sedition law in 1834, which was to become a part of the Indian Penal Code in 1860 and the Criminal Procedure Code in 1861. In the following century, Indians began being rounded up and thrown in jail for making “seditious” speeches. India’s “freedom fighters”, today a part of the pantheon of nationalism, began to be rounded up under this law. Ironically, India and Pakistan chose to retain the law after Independence in 1947. Despite many amendments, the core of the IPC, 1860, is still in the statute books of Pakistan.
The Indian freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak was probably the most defiant of Indian leaders fighting the Raj. In 1916, he was jailed under the sedition law but was successfully defended in court by the man who later became the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. “Tilak had wanted to fight the case with a political spin, but Jinnah insisted that the defence proceed on legal grounds alone”. According to an Indian writer, “Jinnah also facilitated Tilak’s re-entry into the Congress Party and became his partner in the signing of the historic Lucknow Pact the same year.”
Opinion | Benarasi thugs and Pakistani politics
Pakistan is going through a period of “verbal degradation”. Politicians for and against the government employ a language often described by themselves as gali-galoch. Khan was always known to be rough with words while describing the corruption of rulers of Pakistan, and his diatribes usually ended with pledges of exemplary punishment. This “vituperation” has become part of his political style, and he hires people in the “information department” gifted with this special expertise of abuse. The result is shocking: Both government and opposition have degraded themselves as communicators to the level of hired thugs.
The damage to political communication has not been realised in Pakistan as those for and against the government now take pride in having specialised in low expletives. This contagion of the tongue has spread downwards into the population where partisans serve each other with tongue-lashings that are often unprintable. Thinking of the background to this verbal degradation, one has to think of the “religious rage” that has dominated the Muslim world at home and abroad. There is no doubt that “true Muslims” who defend Islam often use bad language as a means of excommunication. You put on a tantrum and you castigate. It is a cruel irony that rage should be associated with religion in India and Pakistan.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 7, 2020 under the title ‘Politics of bad language’. The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan.
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