New Delhi: There is little that Arundhati Roy has in common with Mahatma Gandhi. If Delhi police books the writer-activist for her remarks on Jammu and Kashmir, she will join a league of eminent people booked under the controversial law for acts of defiance against the state.
During his sedition trial in 1922, Mahatma Gandhi had said “Section 124 A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.”
The law defines Section 124A of IPC as “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 can be booked under sedition.”
In his trial Gandhi has clearly stated that if one had “no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite to violence.”
“Some of the most loved of India’s patriots have been convicted under it. I consider it a privilege, therefore, to be charged under that section,” he said.
However, with the establishment of a sovereign, democratic, republic, and shifting definitions of “affection” for the state, civil rights activists are questioning the relevance of sedition laws in a post-colonial India.
While Gandhi is termed a patriot for defying sedition laws, should Roy be charged under it for voicing her opinion on alleged military excesses in Kashmir?
Social activists have slammed Section 124A as “draconian”, pitching for freedom of speech and expression in a non-military state.
Comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under section 124 A of IPC.
Activists claim that governments have time and again abused the sedition law to prosecute political dissenters. There have been allegations of misuse of the law by the Punjab police for many years. Pamphleteering in the name of Jarnail Singh Bhinadranwale landed many Punjab youths in jail under sedition laws.
Political analysts and social activists now demand that the scope of the law be expanded to protect free speech.
The ‘Free Speech Hub’, an initiative of the media watch website ‘The Hoot’, which seeks to monitor instances of attacks and threats to the freedom of speech and expression, claimed in a report in May this year that democracy was under threat with repeated instances of attacks on the media.
Activists argue that sedition cases rarely stand in a court of law and that there should be clear demarcation between offences committed by cross-border terrorists opening fire on innocent citizens and citizens voicing dissatisfaction with governance. They should not fall under the purview of one common law.
The government maintains that peacefully making pro-Azadi speeches does not amount to sedition but inciting hatred through inflammatory oratory in an already emotionally charged atmosphere in the Valley may lead to violence.
Union Law Minister M Veerappa Moily slammed Roy’s speech as “unfortunate” and said "Freedom of speech cannot violate the patriotic sentiments of the people and country.”
Booker winning author Roy’s speeches are also replicated in several Pakistani websites.