Hardik Patel is about to complete 200 days behind bars. The government has put him away for the better part of a year for sedition, because of the ostensible gravity and repeatability of his “offence”. Since these qualities remain unaltered, does it follow that his right to liberty stands suspended for all time? The continuing incarceration of Patel highlights yet again the absurdity of retaining Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which governs sedition, on the statute books.
By all accounts, the young activist has demonstrated an appetite and enthusiasm for disturbing the calm, but criminal law is armed with numerous other provisions for dealing with such challenges. The demand for reservations raised by his Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti is political. Its methods are scarcely above reproach, but governments should engage with it politically, without reaching for magic bullets left over from the 19th century, like the sedition law. In this case — as is usually the case — the government’s response is completely out of proportion with the provocation, a video clip in which Hardik Patel is heard exhorting a supporter threatening suicide to kill some policemen instead. The strength of the police force was not thinned as a result, so this was just a case of Patel shooting his mouth off. But it was read as part of a “conspiracy” against the state, to “attempt to excite disaffection”. By that logic, a bunch of students grousing about the government would be seditious too.
And so they were deemed to be. The arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar and his fellow travellers at JNU has been reviled as a direct attack on campuses and dissent. It has backfired, turning the student union leader into a celebrity of sorts, with an instant book deal thrown in. And yet, the government persists in believing that the charge of sedition is a handy cut-out switch to cow down inconvenient people. None of the celebrated sedition cases of recent years brought any credit to government. It failed to discredit Binayak Sen, Arundhati Roy and S.A.R. Geelani. Earlier this year, Ashis Nandy, who does not enjoy the material support of any political organisation, was forced to offer an apology for painting the Gujarat government in a poor light. But the government gained nothing by harassing the noted academic. It should appreciate that besides being colonial rather than democratic, Section 124A offers no tactical returns either. It is a loser on all counts.
(This editorial first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Lose-lose’)