The bar for sedition is so low in India that even junior school students can attract the attentions of this colonial era law, which should have been struck off the statute books long ago. The Karnataka police have registered a case under sections 124A and 504 against Shaheen School in Bidar and its management, for enacting a play by Class 4 students against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). The provisions penalise those who excite disaffection against the government and intentionally cause insult in order to provoke a breach of the peace. The children who took part in the play which, according to a social activist who filed the complaint which resulted in the case, excited disaffection and threatened the peace, would be nine years old, on average. These children, their families and their teachers are being probed by the police, who are disrupting their lives.
The activist has alleged that the play showed the prime minister in a bad light. However, the video recording of the performance, on the basis of which the complaint was filed, suggests that the play only reflected contemporary reality — the protests which have erupted all over the country against the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the CAA. Their purpose is not to show the government in a good light, but to oppose its policies, and the opposition has been routinely vocal, employing terms that the ruling party has reason to be sensitive about. Theatre holds up a mirror to society, and if the picture isn’t pretty, the mirror is not at fault. Of course, the law is even-handed. Last month, the Shree Rama School, also in Karnataka, and its president, an RSS leader, were booked for staging a play in which the Babri Masjid demolition was re-enacted. This play, too, reflected reality.
Laws are expected to be even-handed in application. But more importantly, they must fit into the democratic system of our nation. The law of sedition was a colonial instrument designed to shore up imperial power by keeping subjects in check. It has no relevance in an independent nation where the people are sovereign, and where the right to free speech includes the right to question or lampoon the political leadership, and even to show it in a bad light. And it is completely irrelevant in the case of children enacting a school play about current affairs, and receiving some political education in the process.
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