Charging people with sedition for raising ‘pro-Pakistan’ slogans is ridiculous
India’s increasingly fragile national ego was hurt this week by a cricket match. Fifteen people, all Muslims, were arrested from Madhya Pradesh’s Burhanpur district and slapped with sedition for allegedly celebrating Pakistan’s victory in the final of the Champions Trophy. The police say their offence was shouting “pro-Pakistan” slogans and bursting firecrackers on the roads. On how crackers or slogans could imperil the country, though, the authorities had no explanation.
The episode underlined a mounting trend in India of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut – a British law to muzzle criticism of the state or government, with the focus often on who said it instead of what was said.
The sedition law has an ignominious history. The colonial provision has been used against activists, political opponents, freedom fighters and even students. In most cases, the charges have been struck down by courts and legal experts have repeatedly stressed that even anti-India slogans didn’t amount to sedition, borne out by the fact that no charges have been filed a year after Jawaharlal Nehru University students were slapped with sedition.
In this case, for example, the families say they never celebrated India’s defeat at the hands of their arch-enemy. But even if they did, it doesn’t amount to any serious threat against the country.
Charges of sedition are usually triggered by acts intended to subvert or overthrow the government through violence. But increasingly, it is wielded as a threat to deal with people who cause discomfort, criticise policies or don’t toe the official line.
The lack of censure or efforts to whittle down the scope of this dangerous law by successive governments has led security forces to use the sedition clause regularly, and with impunity. Even an admission by the junior home minister that the ambit of the law was too wide has failed to temper the enthusiasm.
This augurs badly for Indians, who pride themselves on nurturing a thriving democracy, unlike our neighbours. But by booking people for sedition on account of slogans, remarks made on television or cricket matches, we are baring a needless ego that cannot tolerate even the slightest hint of dissent, let alone criticism.
The strength of India lies not in suppressing voices but in its long-standing tradition of multiculturalism and plurality that has held the country together even at the worst of times. The current amplification of nationalism that seeks to take on anyone who doesn’t agree is a threat to this tradition, and is not in keeping with our cultural and democratic ethos. The sedition law, and its repeated use, is the sharpest marker of this trend. This has no place in our democracy.