Venkaiah Naidu for a more stringent sedition law: BJP leaders' open admission will only spark fear

The nationalism debate, or more infamously dubbed the intolerance debate, has been the favourite topic of discussion among the media, politicians, leading ideologues of various parties, and even politically-inclined students of the country. Recently, the topic found new grounds to restart a dialogue (not so much as open disdain for the other person's view) in the light of the fracas which took place at Delhi University last week.

The clash, which happened at Ramjas College, raised questions similar to those which arose after the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) incident in 2016: A debate over who is a nationalist and who is anti-national dominated a majority of the prime-time news shows. Among the senior politicians who spoke on the issue was BJP leader and Union minister M Venkaiah Naidu. Apart from condemning students of Ramjas College and Delhi University for holding protest marches against ABVP, Naidu accused the Congress and the Left of trying to give a "different colour" to the happenings on some campuses.

File image of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar, who was charged with sedition in March last year. PTI

File image of JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar, who was charged with sedition in March last year. PTI

However, Naidu's most recent comment during an interview with India Today is what is most alarming. Naidu said freedom of expression does not mean liberty to advocate disintegration of the country. "I am surprised about the efforts made by the Congress and the Left to give a different colour to issues that are happening in a few universities, saying it is an assault on freedom of expression. Where is the question of not having the freedom of expression? It is guaranteed under the Constitution," Naidu said.

Lambasting students who raised azadi slogans, Naidu said, "If raising azadi slogans is not treason, then I don't know what is."

He further added that the central government is mulling changing the existing sedition law to make it more stringent. Naidu was referring to those "who seek to disturb the integrity and peace in the country through anti-national propaganda". Former JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar and his azadi speech upon being released from jail in March last year may have been on Naidu's mind. Kanhaiya was labelled an "anti-national" and was arrested on sedition charges.

Referring to the Supreme Court's ruling that only speech that's followed by immediate and proximate violence can be considered seditious, Naidu said, "The slogan of azadi is always followed by violence. These people, whether in Bastar or Jammu and Kashmir, always take to the gun. That is the next course. Their slogans will be followed by violence."

Section 124-A in the Indian Penal Code explains sedition in wide terms. "Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible 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 with life imprisonment."

The law, its implementation, its use and misuse have come under severe criticism, since it is vaguely worded and gives ample opportunity for those who intend to misuse it. The explanations which the law gives are that the expression "disaffection" includes disloyalty and all feelings of hate.

In fact, Amnesty International in its annual human rights report had criticised the Indian government for using the "crude, colonial-era" sedition law to "silence" its critics.

Human rights activists and journalists (in India) faced intimidation and attacks from both state and non-state actors. The crude, colonial-era sedition law was unleashed to silence government critics. Caste-based violence and vigilante cow protection groups harassing and attacking people in states including Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka in the name of upholding laws prohibiting the killing of cows were also highlighted as areas of concern, the report said.

On a global level, the report covering 159 countries condemns the growth of "politics of demonisation" which was breeding division and fear around the world.

Former Supreme Court justice Markandey Katju, was himself booked under the sedition law for his remarks on Bihar.

Explaining what does or does not come under the purview of the law, Katju had said, "Mere demands and slogans for azadi etc will not be crimes unless one goes further and (1) commits violence, or (2) organises violence, or (3) incites imminent violence."

In 1962, in a case Kedarnath Singh versus state of Bihar, the constitutional bench of the Supreme Court had said, "What has been contended is that a person who makes a very strong speech or uses very vigorous words in a writing directed to a very strong criticism of measures of government, might also come within the ambit of 'sedition'. But, in our opinion, such words written or spoken would be outside the scope of the section. A citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the government, or its measures, by way of criticism or comment, so long as he does not incite people to violence."

The law, which is dubbed as outdated and vaguely-worded, has been criticised for its lack of clarity. The State can use it as a tool against anyone if it so wishes.

Senior BJP leaders, including Arun Jaitley, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Kiren Rijiju, who have not hidden their displeasure of the campus skirmishes in Delhi and who have openly admitted that any remark for a separate Kashmir is an act of a gaddar are now rooting for a stringent sedition law.

"Nationalism is a bad word only in India. We must take part in any debate related to disputes over nationalism. The reason is clear. The BJP is committed to its fundamental ideology of love for this country. We will certainly present our side if somebody talks about breaking the country," Jaitley had said.

As this Firstpost article argues, Naidu, or for that matter everyone who demands arrest of the students under sedition law, do not know what treason is according to India's Constitution. We can only imagine that if with a 'lenient' sedition law, this is the case in our country (Kanhaiya Kumar is not the only example of sedition law being 'loosely' slapped on an Indian national), we can only be scared of the repercussions if the government seriously decides to make it stringent.

With inputs from agencies


Published Date: Mar 06, 2017 04:01 pm | Updated Date: Mar 06, 2017 04:01 pm

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