Change sedition law, free Binayak Sen



Very rarely, I do realise the significance to write frequently on a particular issue, until and unless it is of national importance and requires national attention! But then Dr Binayak Sen’s case is unique and hence I decided to write once again for him! It is no secret that Dr Binayak Sen has been deliberately made a victim of an archaic law! The way this law has been used to suppress the voice of Sen and that of his likes is what prompted me to write this particular editorial. It is a matter of utter shame that even today how we clutch to our colonial past and their discriminatory laws which were crafted to boot-lick a select few who ran the government.

We all know that Dr Binayak Sen was arrested for the first time on May 14, 2007 on the charges of allegedly helping jailed Maoist Narayan Sanyal under the garb of providing medical aid. Not to forget that the entire series of his meetings with Sanyal was being supervised by the jail authorities themselves. Despite that, on December 24, 2010, the court sentenced Dr Binayak Sen - a vocal critic of the Chhattisgarh government's counter-insurgency actions against Maoists - to life in prison for sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. The sentence was passed without finding any substantial evidence that could have proved Dr Sen’s association with Maoist group(s) or his assistance to them in any form for their actions. In fact it is the same law that was used against Mahatma Gandhi by the British to curb his non-violent Freedom movement. During his sedition trial in 1922, Gandhiji described sedition law as the “prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen” and further stated that it was important to provide a citizen with freedom to display his “fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite to violence.”

The charges of sedition against Dr Sen has brought to light this prevailing archaic law whose legitimacy can only be comprehended after going into its historical milieu and the reason why it was drafted. In the Indian context, sedition dates back to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, wherein the objective was to forcefully suppress the democratic aspirations of a particular section of society. The skeleton of this section was derived from the common law of seditious libel, meant to control press and publications during that time. This law regardless of being touted as curbing resistance is nothing but a rotten remnant of the colonial past with the sole intent of suppressing potential paradigm change-makers. In its current state, the yardstick that gauges the amplitude of disaffection and the resultant violence is very vaguely defined and is highly subjective.

Raising its voice against such inhuman law, especially during times where people around the world are being made free in terms of expressing their views, the International Human Rights Watch requested the Indian Parliament to immediately repeal the sedition law which local authorities are using to silence peaceful political dissent. The biggest irony is how the High Courts have gone against the Supreme Court’s ruling that clearly demarcates sedition from other acts by stating that “prosecution under the sedition law requires incitement to violence,” and at no given point of time did Dr Sen resort to violence or propagate any such activity. This dates backs to 1962 when the Supreme Court in the Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar case ruled that the charge of sedition can only be slapped if the accused incited violence through his speech. Or else it would violate freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution under Article 19, the Apex Court added. More so, such archaic law even jeopardises the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ratified by India in 1979 which ensures full freedom of expression and prohibits any kind of restrictions. Unfortunately, this law is in the discretion of those illiterate power holders who ‘mis’use it to victimise those who raise their voice against our prejudiced and discriminatory system and corrupt practices!!

Last year in September, the Ugandan judiciary ruled that the sedition law was inconsistent with the principles of freedom of speech and ruled in favour of press freedom by declaring the criminal sedition offence unconstitutional. Similarly, this law in Malaysia is used to curb criticism of the state by non-Malays to protect political elitism! However, this law is being criticised a lot in that nation and is under review. In Singapore, the maximum jail term for distributing a seditious publication is three years and not a life time. While in developed countries like the UK, the last prosecution for sedition occurred in 1972 and by 1977, the common law offence of sedition was abolished. The Sedition Act of 1798 in US that was used by the powers-that-be and the elite class of society for political and other benefits was abolished by Thomas Jefferson after he came to power. Similarly, it was repealed in New Zealand in 2007. On the contrary, the sedition law, in our context, is indicative of our insane penchant for our colonial past! It also speaks volumes about how we are still following laws that have either been annulled or abolished in most other countries. It is a matter of utter disgrace that how the world’s largest democracy is having laws which were once hurdles in the path of its own freedom struggle and which is blatantly against the very definition of democratic rights in today’s context.

Going by this, the Supreme Court should immediately release Dr Binayak Sen and also ensure that no innocent individual gets victimised in the future. For that, it needs to be assertive and come down heavily on this draconian law and, needless to mention, abolish it outright.

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