Photo: Group photograph of members of the Constituent Assembly of India (Legislative), 1949. (Credit: Government of India, Department of Justice website: https://doj.gov.in)
It’s been 73 years since India gained Independence from British rule but can its people experience freedom?
In February, police in the southern city of Bengaluru arrested a 19-year-old journalism student, Amulya Leona Noronha, for shouting the slogan “Pakistan Zindabad (Hail Pakistan)!” She was protesting against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in a public meeting. Her speech was cut short and police took her away on charges of sedition.
Noronha was released more than three months later after the police failed to frame charges. Like her, numerous other citizens have been booked under the sedition law. In 2016, more than 8,500 people from Idinthakarai village in southern Tamil Nadu state were declared “enemies of the State” after they protested against a nuclear power plant.
First bought in by the British, the 150-year-old law has been used, apparently against dissenters, by successive governments since 1947. The British, who ruled India ruthlessly for over a century, abolished the law in their own country more than a decade ago. “Sedition and seditious and defamatory libel are arcane offences – from a bygone era when freedom of expression wasn’t seen as the right it is today,” said Claire Ward, who was the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice at the time.
The law has long outlived its intent.
When Indian sepoys waged a war of independence in 1857, the British crushed it, as the Mutiny failed to have a mass appeal. So the leaders of the freedom movement started propagating patriotic sentiments among the masses through books, poems, songs and plays. To curb this propagation, the British introduced the sedition law in 1870, making any criticism of the government – spoken, written or visible representation – a punishable offence.
In 1922, Mahatma Gandhi was tried under this law – and he openly pleaded guilty. Many other leaders at the time were also charged with sedition.
After Independence, the constituent assembly responsible for drafting the new constitution looked into it. The committee for fundamental rights, headed by Sardar Patel, proposed that a “seditious speech” not be part of the freedom of expression. But Somnath Lahiri, another member of the assembly, responded, “Does Sardar Patel want even more powers than the British government, an alien government, an autocratic government, which is against the people … to protect itself?”
Due to strong opposition at the time, sedition was not included as a legitimate restriction on the freedom of expression. But, surprisingly, sedition was retained in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, perhaps because it was felt that the State needed those powers during the country’s formative years.
Since Independence, Indian governments have repealed around 1,200 colonial laws, but not the sedition law. “Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government shall be punishable with Life Imprisonment,” reads Section 124A.
In 1995, the Supreme Court held that mere sloganeering does not amount to sedition. But successive governments have charged citizens under the law for exactly that: sloganeering.
In 2016, students of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi were charged for allegedly raising “anti-national” slogans. More recently, police in northern Uttar Pradesh state booked 135 people for sedition for protesting against the CAA. In a similar incident, police interrogated 85 school kids five times over nine days for organising an “anti-CAA” play. The allegations included “derogatory remarks” made against India’s prime minister.
Recently, the government justified the law, claiming it is still needed to combat “anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements.” But the numbers don’t support that claim. Between 2016 and 2018, only four out of 156 sedition cases resulted in conviction – though all the accused were harassed due to prolonged trials that followed.
The number of citizens who have been charged with sedition may be “low” in proportion to India’s gigantic population. But the fear of being targeted spreads far and wide, affecting millions of people. One wonders if those millions of citizens can actually say they are able to experience the freedom that we celebrate each year on this day.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of StoriesAsia and StoriesAsia does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
Jessica Goel is a Multimedia Producer with StoriesAsia and a graduate from Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi. When she isn’t telling stories, she likes to make illustrating artwork.
Richard Kujur is a Multimedia Producer with StoriesAsia and a graduate from Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi.