The Congress, which is accusing the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA government of high-handedness in the wake of the sedition cases filed against the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for allegedly raising anti-India slogans, had on numerous occasions used the colonial law to quell opposing voices and political adversaries, right from the 1950s. The sedition law had been used by the grand old party also on occasions when national symbols or sentiments were mocked at.
When myriad corruption cases of the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance government became public knowledge in 2011, attracting a nationwide anti-graft movement, the Congress resorted to censorship. Even artists who used their art to satirise corruption were not spared. A case in hand was Aseem Trivedi. The cartoonist, then only 25, was arrested for sedition in 2012 for representing in his work the widespread corruption among India’s political elite. His arrest was prompted by complaints from private individuals including Congress leader and advocate R.P. Pandey. Additional charges were brought against him by Maharashtra police for mobilising the youth for mass protests. Maharashtra was then ruled by the Congress. One of his cartoons replaced India’s national emblem of four Ashoka lions with bloodthirsty wolves and the inscription “Satyameva Jayate” (long live the truth) was altered to “Bhrashtameva Jayate” (long-live corruption), alluding to UPA ministers’ involvement in graft cases. Earlier, his anti-corruption website “Save your Voice” was taken down by Crime Branch Mumbai, following a complaint from Pandey that it contained seditious and obscene content.
Around the same time, the beleaguered government of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went on a blocking spree on Twitter, suspending accounts that posted anti-government feeds. Singh’s ministers reacted indignantly to foreign press for writing unfavourably of the UPA and reproved social networking sites such as Facebook for not censoring material deemed insulting to then political leadership of the country.
The Congress also came into a judicial-executive friction on the matter of sedition. In 2003, the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress government in Rajasthan slapped a sedition case against Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia for defying its ban on tridents. In 2005, again, the Congress governments in Punjab and Haryana filed an FIR against Simranjit Singh Mann, president of Shiromani Akali Dal, Amritsar, for raising pro-Khalistan slogans at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on the 21st anniversary of Operation Blue Star.
The party had also nearly decided to send Booker prize winning novelist and human rights campaigner Arundhati Roy to jail for alleged hate speech in November 2010. The Delhi police—the Congress was in power in both Delhi and at the Centre—booked Roy for delivering “seditious” speech at a seminar held in the national capital. Roy had questioned the accession of Kashmir to India. The media reported at the time that the directive to book Roy was sent to Delhi police by none other than the Ministry of Home Affairs, then under the Congress led UPA government.
Throughout the Congress rule, under first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and then his daughter PM Indira Gandhi, the party used the law on sedition to weaken those who questioned corruption. In 1954, the Congress wrongly framed one Ram Nandan for sedition. Nandan had crticised the Congress regime for not being able to address extreme poverty in the country. The court held that he was not guilty. In 1962, Kedar Nath, a member of the Communist Forward Party in Bihar, who accused Congress of corruption, black-marketeering and tyranny, attracted the same charges. The cases are too many to count.
Experts believe the Congress’ allegation that the space for reasoned debate has shrunk under PM Narendra Modi is of flimsy nature. “I think that to talk about dissent being stifled in India is remarkably short sighted. Because the amount of clamour and the amount of noise that we saw in recent weeks only proves everybody is speaking their mind freely. Some voices are pleasant, some not so pleasant. But there is no stifling of dissent. In fact, there is an explosion of chatter that is happening,” columnist Swapan Dasgupta told The Sunday Guardian.
He was referring to the arrests of JNU students’ leader Kanhaiya Kumar along with Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, which were followed by mass demonstration by the students’ community, as well as by political parties.
The sedition law has been criticised by many as a “colonial hangover”. The Section 124-A of the 156-year-old Indian Penal Code says that “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visual representation, or otherwise brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India, shall be punished.” A debate is raging whether the law should be amended.