The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Sedition Laws and Their Post-Colonial Legacy in India and Pakistan

The legacy of colonial-era sedition laws weighs heavily on both India and Pakistan.

Bansari Kamdar
Sedition Laws and Their Post-Colonial Legacy in India and Pakistan
Credit: AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

In 1922, one of the most famous figures of the Indian Independence Movement, Mohandas Gandhi was charged with “sedition” under the Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. While appearing at the British court in Ahmedabad, Gandhi called the law “prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.” He was sentenced to six years in jail.

Sedition was often used by the British to suppress dissent. The freedom fighters of South Asia transformed these cases that cracked down on their speech into stages to protest British imperialism. Another prominent leader from the independence movement charged with sedition was Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He was represented in court by none other than a young Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the man who would go on to become the founding father of Pakistan.

Nowadays, in the policy sphere, India and Pakistan may not agree on much. Nevertheless, there is one area where they are both in concurrence: the use of sedition laws.

The sedition laws of India and Pakistan stem from a common ancestor: Section 124A of the 1860 Indian Penal Code (IPC), originally introduced by the British government in 1870. While the United Kingdom abolished its own sedition law in 2010, the law continues to be enforced across the Indian subcontinent.

While the Indian constitution grants its citizens the right to freedom of speech, sedition laws are increasingly being used by the Indian government to encroach on these rights. For instance, in Karnataka, Fareeda Begum, a 50-year-old teacher, and Nazbunnisa, a 36-year-old parent, were arrested over a children’s school play depicting the fear gripping the country’s Muslim minority due to the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

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The CAA, introduced in late 2019 by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), offers fast track citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. As protests rage across the nation, cases of sedition in the past two months against anti-CAA protesters already outnumber the sum of sedition cases filed in 2016, 2017, and 2018, according to data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). According to the 2018 NCRB data, sedition cases in India doubled from 2016 to 2018, from 35 to 70 cases.

The AFP reports that the women from Karnataka were released on bail on a personal bond of $1,400 (more than 100,000 rupees) each on February 15, 2020. The arrests of the two women followed widespread outrage after videos emerged of the officers interrogating young children between the age of 9 and 11 years over the play. The police visited the school at least five times to question the children.

A 2018 consultation paper by the Law Commission of India also critiqued the arbitrary and widescale use of Section 124A. “Every irresponsible exercise of right to free speech and expression cannot be termed seditious. For merely expressing a thought that is not in consonance with the policy of the government of the day, a person should not be charged under the Section,” it added.

In Pakistan, Manzoor Pashteen, a Pashtun Rights leader and the head of the Pashtun Protection Movement (Pashtun Tahafuz Movement or PTM), was arrested in January 2020 on similar charges of sedition for his criticism of the powerful Pakistani military under a similar 124A of the Penal Code.

The military is one of the strongest institutions in Pakistan. Since its birth in 1947, Pakistan has been ruled for at least half of its independent history by the military, with three democratically elected leaders deposed by the military and several more attempted coups. Once again, the scales seem to be tipping in the favor of the military with the hasty extension of the term of the army chief in January 2020.

Pashteen’s arrest also followed the arrest of 23 activists who were protesting against his detainment. The activists were later granted bail. Manzoor Pashteen was released last weekend, a month after his arrest. Another activist, Alamgir Wazir, was arrested in December 2019 for his participation in Pakistan’s Students Solidarity March and also charged with sedition. Earlier this month, the Lahore High Court denied his bail.

Among the luminaries jailed under sedition in Pakistan was the renowned Marxist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. In 1951, Faiz was imprisoned for four years by Liaquat Ali for sedition and his role in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy. During his three months of solitary confinement, he wrote:

“My pen and tablet, all that I had
Taken away from me
But what’s there to grieve for?
For I have dipped my fingers in my heart’s blood 
So what if my lips have been sealed shut?
I have now put a tongue in 
Each and every link of the chain”
(Dast-e-Saba)

Ironically, in India, chants of another Faiz poem, “Hum Dekhenge,” by anti-CAA protesters have been raising the hackles of BJP leaders who had a committee set up to establish whether it was ”anti-Hindu.” The poem was written originally in 1979 in protest of the increasing Islamicization of Pakistan under military dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s regime. Zia had banned the public recitation of these words.

In Pakistan, Manzoor Pashteen is branded as an “Indian agent.” In India, protesters are accused of being “anti-national” and “making Pakistan happy” by protesting the CAA. Both are charged under the continued colonial tradition of punishing dissent by labelling it sedition.

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Seven decades ago, the estranged South Asian neighbors triumphed over the British Raj and won their independence. Nonetheless, through the colonial-era 124A sedition law of the Indian Penal Code and the Pakistan Penal Code, the right to speech to hold those in power accountable remains an offense punishable by life imprisonment in both India and Pakistan.