Sedition? Oh no! Not again!

IN Media Freedom | 14/08/2014
The FIR against Telangana politician K Kavitha underlines the need to jettison this colonial-era law.
But the NDA government is not going to agree in a hurry, says GEETA SESHU
After writers, politicians, a cartoonist, civil liberties activists and journalists, the Nizamabad MP K Kavitha is the latest in the list of people charged with sedition. But as we go into the 68th year of India’s Independence, why do we still need this colonial-era law?
In an interview to an English newspaper, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) politician and daughter of Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekahar Rao, said that both Telangana and Jammu and Kashmir were not part of India before Independence and that the international boundaries of the latter must be re-drawn.
In the interview, Kavitha forcefully spoke of the rights of Kashmiri people:
So it’s from the people’s perspective that I’ve started reading about Jammu and Kashmir. We need to solve issues, particularly the Kashmiri Pandits’ issue which is put up in the agenda of the BJP. They say we can all take them back home, but it is just a political statement. You have to create a safe environment before you take them there. We need to come out clean on Jammu and Kashmir. Few parts were not ours, we should agree, we should redraw the international lines, and move on.
Now, what’s seditious about this, one may well ask? But a complaint was lodged by the BJP’s city legal cell convener K Karunasagar and after a local court directed police to act on it, the Madannapet police in Hyderabad registered an FIR with charges of sedition under Sec 124-A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as well as Sec 153 A IPC (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and for acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony, assertions prejudicial to national integration), and Section 505, IPC (making statements conducive to public mischief).
In the interview, the first-time MP spoke of learning the ways of Parliament and the need to debate the contentious issue of owning land and property in both Telangana and Jammu and Kashmir.
Perhaps the young parliamentarian didn’t realize that using the ‘K’ word was taboo. The Congress-I quickly condemned her comments and social media abuse soon followed. But in Kashmir, the People’s Political Party (PPP) chairman Hilal Ahmad War quickly hailed her statement. In any case, instead of discussing the points she raised, slapping sedition charges on her amounts to silencing another point of view on this contentious subject.
Till date, there has been no reaction on the FIR against the MP or on her views from the sphinx-like Union government. Given its views, its not likely there will be any.
In 2011, in a grudging response to the campaign to free Dr Binayak Sen, then UPA Law Minister Veerappa Moily did say that sedition, as a colonial-era law, must go.  Not so the then BJP leader and our present Union Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley.  In a sharp reaction to the alleged speech by writer Arundhati Roy on Kashmir, Jaitley said that no democracy would accept these views under the garb of free speech.
Chilling effect of sedition
Apart from the penal provisions it carries (maximum being life imprisonment), sedition has immense potential to chill free speech and dissent. Leave alone the label of being an ‘anti-national’, freeing oneself from a charge of sedition can take years.
For RK Ranendrajit, former editor of the now defunct The Freedom, Manipur, it took 17 years.  Charged with sedition for several editorials (specifically one entitled Eclipse Month) about the human rights violations after the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was promulgated in Manipur, he was arrested but took anticipatory bail. On June 24, this year, A Guneshwor Sharma, Session Judge, Imphal East, discharged him of all charges of sedition.
The judge maintained that no instance of ‘causing of disaffection, hatred and contempt against the government’ and that no action could be taken for he was ‘making a fair criticism of the government policy and action very strongly’.
Sedition vs Dissent
Over the last five years alone, there have been numerous instances of the rampant misuse of sedition to book a range of people, from the celebrated writer Arundhati Roy for her views on Kashmir, PUCL leader and well-known health activist and doctor, Binayak Sen for alleged links to Maoists, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi for lampooning Parliament, PUCl Karnataka leader Dr E Rati Rao for publishing a now defunct journal and civil society activist Piyush Sethia for circulating a pamphlet on Operation Greenhunt.
Others charged were journalist Naveen Soorinje for allegedly ‘participating’ in a homestay raid by right-wingers in Mangalore when he actually went to cover it and the editor of Manipuri newspaper Nahalrogi Thoudang for  publishing a photograph of a banned insurgency group!
Besides, 67 Kashmiri students were charged with sedition in Lucknow for allegedly cheering Pakistan in an Indo-Pak cricket match.  So was Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal, for allegedly saying that Parliament was filled with "murderers, rapists and dacoits". Both these were subsequently withdrawn.
Despite clear guidelines about its use and, as in provisions on hate speech, directives that it must be applied only when there is incitement to violence, sedition is a happy hunting weapon for the state and it is definitely not going to give it up easily.
Of course, one may well ask how much a difference it would make to merely repeal sedition, when other repressive provisions exist in laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security  Act, the AFSPA etc.
But that’s another struggle.
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