Updated: November 10, 2015 12:41:04 am
The Supreme Court has declined to give relief to Hardik Patel of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, who faces sedition charges in Gujarat, until the probe against him is complete. This is yet another opportunity to consider the utility — rather, redundancy — of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which governs sedition. Would its removal render the statute books incompetent to address the actions that now attract its provisions? This question is so patently rhetorical that it assumes the form of the elephant in the room every time sedition charges are imposed. Because, usually, the charge is absurdly out of proportion to the provocation and, more compellingly, because it seems to be a feint to conceal the anxieties of the government, which lie elsewhere.
In the case of Patel, his appetite for disturbing public order is alarming and the government can only see him as a problem. The charge of sedition was attracted by video footage in which he allegedly told an activist threatening suicide to kill a few policemen instead. But to see him as an enemy of the state on grounds of a loose statement would be to accord him disproportionate importance. But at least Patel is capable of causing some actual mayhem, unlike other recent targets of the sedition law. The physician and social worker Binayak Sen was put away merely for associating with Maoists. Arundhati Roy was charged for speaking at a seminar on Kashmir titled “Azadi: The Only Way”. In 2008, the scholar Ashis Nandy was charged by the Gujarat government for a newspaper article. It is all too easy to deliberately misread criticism of the government as an attack on India, and throw Section 124A at it.
It is no coincidence that freedom fighters number among the most prominent targets of sedition law. Mahatma Gandhi had celebrated it as “the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.” The very idea of sedition, which criminalises “attempts to excite disaffection” against the government, is a vestigial remnant of colonial law that should have been surgically excised in a free country. The democratic system celebrates disaffection as a self-correcting mechanism. It values criticism of the government, institutions and the state, and holds the right to debate in the highest esteem. Sedition law, as it has been seen in use, is an anachronism in this system.
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