A group of eminent Indians had written an open letter to the Prime Minister pointing out the problem of vigilante attacks. Such attacks have been occurring for a while now and the main victims are Muslims. The attacks occur mainly in the Hindi belt.
The authors were not revealing a dark secret or a vital aspect of India’s defences. Even so, a citizen filed an FIR with the police, and a local magistrate in Bihar then filed a case for sedition under the Indian Penal Code. The case has now been closed.
The astonishing thing is that the person filing the FIR was not a military or a civil servant. The evidence advanced for the sedition charged was that the letter is likely to bring India into disrepute. What evidence could there possibly be for this belief? Why should a section or two of the IPC frustrate the Freedom of Expression guaranteed as a Fundamental Right in the Constitution?
To understand this, you have to go back into the past when the British ruled India. They introduced the law, lawyers and law courts which Indians love so much that 33 crore cases are outstanding, waiting to be decided. As British rule spread across India, the British needed some laws. Warren Hastings had hoped to rule using existing Hindu and Muslim legal texts but soon that friendly approach was abandoned. English laws were to be used to keep Indians in order. The British rulers never understood their subjects — the mob as they called it. They needed someone to fashion tools for keeping Indians in order.
The one person who met the challenge was Thomas Babington Macaulay. In the five years he had on the Governor General’s Council, he changed the face of India forever. Forget his Minute on Education. That only trained generations of Indians in English and the treasures of Western science and history. But he gave us a jewel which every government in India values as the best gift of two centuries of English rule. This is the IPC (Indian Penal Code). He boasted that he was going to prepare the best short summary of the English penal system. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
The Independence movement knew the IPC well. They suffered day in and day out from it. It was repressive. But when they came to power, they did nothing to remove the IPC or even amend its worst features. When they had the chance, they retained not just the IPC but the entire collection of laws of repression installed by the British. The rulers may have changed colour but their suspicion of the mob had not gone.
The British have reformed their laws and their penal system. But India loves Macaulay (and British Rule) so much that it cannot abandon or reform a rusty 19th-century law. The mob has to be ruled with an iron rod. Now even a group of writers and creative artistes have been denounced as a mob would be. The irony is that filing of the FIR has already done the damage to India’s reputation.
After a long agitation Section 377 was removed. More needs removing.
It is fashionable lately to denounce Macaulayputras. If sincere, remove the most pernicious legacy of Macaulay. Have the courage to remove or at least reform the IPC.
The article appeared in print under the headline ‘Out of my Mind: Hail Macaulay for our outdated laws’