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Sedition law is against spirit of democracy

From The Times of India:

Dr. Binayak Sen

I was convicted of sedition (section 124 of the IPC) on December 24 (Christmas eve), 2009, and awarded life imprisonment by the additional sessions judge, Raipur. I had already spent two years in jail as an undertrial before the Supreme Court granted me bail. Following my conviction, another four months was spent in a solitary cell before the Supreme Court suspended the sentence and granted bail, remarking in the process that there did not seem to be any evidence against me. A hearing of my appeal in the Chhattisgarh High Court is now awaited.

Afew days ago, human rights organizations gathered in Delhi to welcome back from jail Seema Azaad, the general secretary of the UP PUCL. She had also been convicted of sedition and awarded life sentence on the basis of some innocuous documents found in her possession , and then was granted bail by the Allahabad High Court after having spent two-and-a-half years in jail.

I was reminded of all these events when i joined the Mumbai Press Club to greet the young cartoonist, Aseem Trivedi, following his release from jail on September 12. He had spent four days in jail after being charged with sedition , allegedly because of the content of some of his cartoons . These charges were deemed to be so patently absurd that Aseem’s incarceration aroused a storm of protest, resulting in his prompt release.

Sedition is said to have occurred when any attempt is made to bring the government of the day into disaffection . Mohandas Gandhi was convicted of sedition by the British Imperial government in 1922. Arguing his own case, Gandhi told the judge that he had no affection for the British government and, moreover, he felt it was his duty to inform his fellow citizens as to why he had no affection for it. While convicting Gandhi, the British judge felt it necessary to apologize to Gandhi for his act, to which he was bound by his duty as a judge.

Such stories are part of the folklore of sedition, and create the impression that sedition is about well-known or relatively resourceful people standing up to a bumbling state power. Nothing could be further from the truth. The most important lesson i learnt in jail was that there are vast numbers of people accused of sedition and incarcerated for this reason. To take just one example, several hundred very ordinary men and women participating in the peaceful anti-nuclear agitation in Kudankulam have been charged with sedition.

The state today stands guarantor, under the doctrine of eminent domain, to a country-wide process of expropriation of common property resources — land, water, forest, minerals and traditional knowledge such as knowledge of biodiversity. Communities, whose survival is dependent on their access to common property resources, find their survival threatened by this process of expropriation. Resisting this process becomes key to the survival of these communities , and the law of sedition is one of the important resources deployed by the state in order to suppress this entirely legitimate resistance. Communities cannot be expected to acquiesce in their own extinction, but the state seems perfectly prepared to deploy its resources, both juridical and military, in order to ensure that its writ should run.

The application of sedition is also contrary to the spirit of a democratic polity. After all, the process of building up political alternatives has to be based on holding — and advocating — views that are contrary to those held by the current holders of power. Sedition serves the power holder very well, because any heterodox opinion can promptly be limited by being safely put away. Human rights workers and their organizations across the country have come together to press for repeal of the sedition law and other similar laws. They are jointly engaged in a signature campaign, and a series of public meetings, to petition Parliament for the prompt repeal of these archaic and antidemocratic legal formulations, which constitute a real danger to the development of a genuinely democratic polity.

The writer is an academician, pediatrician and a human rights activist