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Sedition Umar Khalid

Let’s Play Sedition-Sedition

We are seemingly in a democracy and though under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution,  every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression, subject to restriction, every preceding government since Independence has disallowed true criticism and resistance.


Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”


When we studied this poem written by Rabindranath Tagore in school, I remember, our English teacher detailing the nuances in the poetry appreciation class. There was a sense of pride with which it was taught and learned. However, today, if Tagore were to be alive he would have been arrested under sedition, for ‘instigating the citizens to question’, stand up against ‘narrow mindedness’. This section 124A of the Indian Penal Code is a relic and loosely used on citizens. In fact, it is the only political weapon used freely by every political party.

The current political environment in India can be definitely compared to any country that has totalitarian governments which restrict the freedom of citizens. Today, one can get arrested for saying they hate India, for liking a Facebook post, a photograph criticising the Prime Minister or shaming acts of majority groups. Sadly, no such strict action is seen in the case of caste killings, lynchings or harassment of the minorities.


Growing intolerance


Umar Khalid
Umar Khalid being escorted by police. (Source: Web)


Imagine after 11 hours of gruelling questioning, the Delhi police arrested Umar Khalid under UAPA and this archaic section, for the Delhi riots, like the other intellectuals and activists arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon riots case. Along with Khalid, Delhi Police, in their supplementary chargesheet, have named Sitaram Yechury, the CPI (M) general secretary, economist Jayati Ghosh and Professor Apoorvaanand of Delhi University for ‘provoking and mobilising’ anti-CAA protestors.

Compared to other states, Maharashtra too, is no different, since the anti-CAA protests took place last year, till now, 51 people, including a student from Tata Institute of Social Sciences have been charged with sedition. I mean the routinely bandied, much-memed Salim-Javed dialogue of ‘Mere paas maa hai’ can be replaced with ‘Mere paas sedition charge hai’. That is how the section is being used, liberally. It is pertinent to note, no government is willing to listen to any sort of criticism and this trend, of course, has been on the rise since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power.


Urvashi Chudawala-TISS student was charged with Sedition for allegedly shouting a slogan in support of jailed JNU student Sharjeel Imam. (Source: Web)


There is growing intolerance and the unwritten rule is NOT to question the government on its failures — the economy, erosion of the social fabric and existential issues like hunger, deaths due to starvation, complete indifference to the migrant workers. In fact, just this week, we read how this government has conveniently kept no record of the deaths of migrant workers during the lockdown. This is definitely being done to deliberately obliterate facts and failures of the government which it refuses to admit. Shockingly, this too shall fade from public memory.

We are seemingly in a democracy and though under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution,  every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression, subject to restriction, every preceding government since Independence has disallowed true criticism and resistance.

Writer Arundhati Roy, Dr Binayak Sen and few others were charged with sedition for speaking on Kashmir or the Naxal issue. After Delhi Police arrested Umar and filed their chargesheet, Congress leaders sprang in support of the activists. In fact, during the Congress-led UPA government, thousands of citizens were charged under sedition. It is time to recall the arrest of Kanpur-based cartoonist, Aseem Trivedi. The Congress government grossly misused the sedition law, which was first introduced by the British in the 1800s, obviously for any intolerance towards their monarchy and the East India Company that had colonised India.


Anti-Corruption cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested by Mumbai Police in 2011. (Source: Web)


The most interesting part is the reason why the British introduced sedition in 1870. They feared that Muslim preachers at that time would wage a war against their government. This was, in fact, after their successful suppression of Wahabi/Waliullah Movement. There is not much difference between an elected government or a monarch, the greed to hold onto power indisputably has been seen in every government that has ruled India. Also, the British legacy continues, there is zero-tolerance for any criticism from the Muslim community.

Our nationalist politicians, however, continue to be feudal and hold onto such Raj relics, laws which can be smartly used as a weapon. Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency and had scarce tolerance for criticism. Since 2014, we are witnessing another undeclared emergency, with one’s basic fundamental rights to question and criticise the government being denied. A report shows that since 2014,  number of sedition cases have been on the rise in India. Assam, Jharkhand, Bihar and Haryana have the most number of sedition cases, making them ‘sedition hotspots’. Interestingly, only a handful of these sedition cases result in a conviction, which again tells us, this is basically being wielded as a deterrent.


A protester holding anti-CAA Poster At Rally. (Source: Web)


The ease with which this section is being charged definitely raises doubts about the intention of the prevailing government. The fact is, even if any government wants to charge an individual with sedition, there are certain guidelines to be followed. The so-called progressive state of Maharashtra is yet to frame guidelines. The draft of these guidelines was submitted by the then Congress-Nationalist Congress Party, but predictably, the BJP government sat on it. However, even though the NCP and Congress are part of the Maha Vikas Aghadi, no progress has been made.

Also, one always gets to hear the illustrious names who had faced this charge during the British period – Mahatma Gandhi, Gangadhar Tilak, Maulana Azad and so on. Yes, they upheld their right to protest and it was against a foreign power that had colonised India. Obviously fans of the current government question the criticism expressed by protesters against this stifling CAA, NRC law. The fact is, with these new laws that target specific communities and sections of Indians who rightfully belong to this country, the ruling dispensation is just like our erstwhile colonisers. That is exactly the intent that is being questioned and protesters are being slapped with sedition.


Sedition, a favourite of the subcontinent

The growing intolerance of the current dispensation tells us, the government is selective in allowing criticism, backs violence against certain religious communities and promotes hatred. But if this same reasoning is extended by those individuals against this selective ideology perpetuated by the government, then you are liable to be charged under sedition. Very much like contempt of court is used by the judges.

Neighbouring Pakistan is not far behind, having charged many citizens under this section. At the time the anti-CAA protests were growing in India, just across the border, hundreds of people were being charged under sedition for participating in the Students Solidarity March, by the Pakistan government. It does seem like a season of sedition in the subcontinent.

The Al Jazeera channel ran a feature a few days ago, showing the increasing intolerance by Imran Khan-led government and how people are being silenced. This trend is also seen in our other neighbouring countries, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.


Organizers of Student Solidarity March Were Charged With Sedition In Pakistan. (Source: Web)


Sedition laws exist the world over but the usage of this law varies from country to country. In most countries, citizens are charged with sedition when it is seen that a certain section wants to topple the government or question/criticise the monarchs. And while the subcontinent continues the British legacy of this archaic law, Britain has abolished it. Under Section 73 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, sedition and seditious libel has been abolished.

While New Zealand and South Korea too have done away with this law, Indonesia has declared sedition as ‘unconstitutional’.

Neeta Kolhatkar is a senior journalist with over 30 years of work experience across different media platforms. She is currently a freelancer and media consultant.

(Views Expressed Are Personal

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