NEW DELHI: Soon after the Delhi Police filed a charge-sheet in the 2016 Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) sedition case, the Congress party jumped to the defence of the charge-sheeted. One point Congress leaders harped on the most was the misuse of the sedition law, i.e. Section 124-A of Indian Penal Code (IPC), one of the eight IPC provisions under which the accused have been charge-sheeted. However, a look-back would reveal that thousands of cases of sedition were filed whenever and wherever the Congress was in power in the past.
In just one incident, 9,000 such cases were slapped on people in 2012 when the Congress-led UPA government was in power at the Centre. Ironically, none other than then Home Minister P. Chidambaram and Law Minister Kapil Sibal are now most vociferous against the anti-sedition penal provision.
Dubbing the charges in the JNU case as “absurd”, a “reformed” Chidambaram called for a debate on “whether a provision like IPC Section 124A has a place in the laws of a democratic republic”. Casting aspersions on the “competence” of the investigators, he tweeted: “How many in the investigating team have read and understood Section 124A of the IPC and the case law on the Section?” The former Home Minister also said that “it exposes the motive of the government”.
Going a step ahead, Sibal sought the outright scrapping of the provision as “those in power are manipulating it”. Describing the law as a “colonial hangover”, he alleged that it had become a tool for the government to browbeat those who were opposed to it. “There is no need for a sedition law in today’s times…Many who merely speak or tweet against the government have sedition charges imposed against them. It is being misused by the Centre just to keep citizens in check,” Sibal stated.
With such statements coming from people who held positions as important as the Home and Law Ministers of the country and did nothing except use colonial laws with zest, the question that arises is if the law is really “draconian”, what prevented the duo from repealing it when they were an influential part of the previous Manmohan Singh government.
A close examination is needed as to how exactly the law was used when they were in power not too long ago. Thousands of sedition cases were filed against citizens during the 10-year UPA rule alone. Take the case of agitation against the nuclear power plant at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu. A fact-finding team comprising journalists and civil society members had found that FIRs were registered against 55,795 people and around 23,000 agitators were arrested, while sedition charges were slapped against around 9,000 of them for “waging war against the Government of India”. Thus, the government of the Sonia Gandhi-led UPA has the dubious distinction of having the highest number of sedition charges being filed in the shortest period of time.
The most infamous case of misuse of the law was the one against Kanpur-based cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, who was put behind bars for two weeks for drawing caricatures depicting the reach of corruption in society. He was accused of putting up banners “mocking” the Constitution during Anna Hazare’s rally in Mumbai in 2012 and posting the same on his website. One cartoon titled “Gang rape of Mother India” showed Mother India dressed in a tri-colour sari, with politicians and bureaucrats about to assault her, with a gleeful beast standing by described as “Corruption”.
Another of his cartoons showed India’s national emblem, the Ashoka Lions, with foxes rather than lions. In the inscription on the emblem, the words “Satyamev Jayate” (truth alone triumphs) were replaced with “Brashtamev Jayate” (corruption alone triumphs) and a danger sign. This was enough for the Maharashtra police to book him under sedition charges. At the time, Congress-led governments were in power both at the Centre and in the state.
Hundreds of other such instances are there wherein different Congress governments liberally pressed the sedition charges against scores of dissenters. No attempts were ever made by Congress leaders to do away with the 158-year-old law.
Drafted by Thomas Macaulay, the law was introduced in the 1870s by the then British rulers mainly to use against the freedom fighters and to muzzle voices of freedom. In the decades after Independence, the law was used against people for accusing Congress governments of corruption and tyranny.
Historically, the very first Constitutional Amendment brought by the Jawaharlal Nehru government in May 1951 shows how “freedom-loving” the Congress has been. The first tinkering of the original Constitution, which was hardly a year old then, came when Nehru placed restrictions on the fundamental rights of the citizens of independent India, limiting their freedom of expression. In later years, it also amply proved that the Emergency was not just an aberration, but merely the culmination of the party’s use of totalitarian laws that it retained from the British era and only added on to it rather than doing away with it.