What do a class of primary schoolers, a 22-year-old climate activist, and the impoverished residents of an impoverished tribal district have in common? In the eyes of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, each poses a serious threat to the stability of the Indian state.
The primary schoolers had performed in a play protesting the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act; Disha Ravi, the climate activist had tried to raise awareness about the ongoing protests against the government’s new agricultural laws; and the 10,000 tribal people had protested the state acquisition of their land. For their pains, each was charged with “sedition,” an offence enacted by India’s colonial rulers in 1870 under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code.
The law is disturbingly vague. Under its clauses, anyone who attempts to “bring into hatred or contempt” or “excite[s] disaffection towards” the government is to be imprisoned, potentially for life. Although it carries caveats that criticism of the government that does not promote violence is not to be prosecuted under the law, the present government, led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), appears to have overlooked that part of the text. As the cases outlined above make clear, it takes little to provoke the ire of the government, and the prosecution of the law-enforcement agencies deeply in thrall to the ruling party.
Seven years of BJP rule has caused catastrophic damage to India’s civil liberties and political freedom. India’s position on international indices has steadily declined, with the recently-released Freedom House report downgrading the country’s status to only “partly free.” The government brooks no dissent, targeting the country’s few independent media houses, forcing out advocacy groups, and leading the world in internet shutdowns that seek to prevent the spread of information.
Among the bluntest and more effective tools in the government’s arsenal is the sedition law, and the BJP has made enthusiastic use of it. A recent study has found that a full 96 percent of cases filed against critics of the government since 2010 were registered after Modi’s election in 2014. Almost three-quarters of them pertained to “critical” or “derogatory” comments made either against Modi, the subject of an all-consuming cult of personality, or his close lieutenant Yogi Adityanath, a rabidly sectarian monk who runs the huge state of Uttar Pradesh.
Since 2014, there have been 326 cases registered under the sedition law. Only six of them have resulted in convictions – a comically low rate that lays bare the true intent of the sedition charge: to intimidate critics into silence. India’s notoriously slow legal system means that those accused of sedition face years of legal harassment, even considering the farcical and futile nature of most sedition cases. What could justify, for example, slapping a charge on an octogenarian priest for a Facebook post condemning the poor treatment of tribal people? Or on a political journalist for speculating that the BJP was planning to replace a state leader? Such cases cannot be won in a court, but they can be used to hound activists, media, and ordinary people into withholding their opinions.
The judiciary has indeed been skeptical of the broad use of sedition charges. Aside from the low conviction rate, a Supreme Court ruling in 1962 made clear that a sedition charge was valid only against actions that incited violence. Earlier this month, the Court emphasized that dissent is protected as free speech and that criticizing the government is not automatically qualified as sedition. Such pronouncements have obviously not had their intended effect.
In most democratic countries, sedition laws are rightly considered relics of a bygone age, either rarely used (the United States) or repealed altogether (Britain, Australia, and New Zealand). The Indian Penal Code remains stuffed with outdated rubbish, the unlovely vestiges of Victorian moralism and imperial autocracy. India has repealed some of its most egregious clauses, notably decriminalizing gay sex in 2018. But anti-democratic relics still remain on the books, and, in the case of the sedition law, are used to their fullest extent. The mountain of sedition charges laid by the government of today is legally-sanctioned thuggish intimidation that has no place in a modern democracy. To begin seriously curing the colonial hangover that afflicts India’s legal and political culture, the sedition law must be repealed.
Perhaps Section 124A’s most famous victim is Mahatma Gandhi, jailed for his work in “Young India,” the current-affairs journal he published. Gandhi labelled the sedition law the “prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen,” and declared that “some of the most loved of India’s patriots have been convicted under it. I consider it a privilege, therefore, to be charged under that section.”
A century after that famous trial, dissenters are still suffering under the yoke of a government that does not tolerate their attempts at forming a more perfect society. Then, as now, the law was used to suppress those fighting for their freedom – to speak one’s mind, to have control over one’s own destiny. A state that claims to be democratic should fight tooth and nail to preserve such freedoms, not go out of its way to grind them down. Authoritarians like Modi spend their days trying to stamp out the frightening shadows they see behind every expression of discontent. A law crafted 150 years ago should not legitimize their efforts.