Gagging freedom of expression

The Kerala police have charged a Malayalam writer with sedition for writing a Facebook comment on the recent arrest of some cine-goers accused of not standing up when the national anthem was being played. The writer Kamal Chavara’s arrest was the sequel to a complaint filed with the police by the Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the BJP. What is shocking is that while the cine-goers were arrested under Section 188 of the IPC for ‘disobeying’ an official order (that spectators should stand up when the national anthem is being played), the writer, who wrote a comment on the incident, has been slapped with the sedition charge under Section 124A of the IPC.

What is even more shocking is that it was the police in Kerala which is ruled by the CPM that arrested the writer. The CPM has been a vociferous critic of ‘misusing’ the relevant section of the IPC (sedition) for gagging criticism of dissenting opinion. The influence that a front organization of the BJP wields on the police even in a Left-ruled State is really something to worry about. The arrest is particularly condemnable because there is a clear Supreme Court ruling that mere verbal criticism shall not attract the charge of sedition; only specific actions that incite violence or disturb law and order will.  Naturally, human rights bodies like the People’s Union of Civil Liberties have criticized the arrest.

Stalwarts of India’s freedom movement, from Mahatma Gandhi to Bal Gangadhar Tilak to Jawaharlal Nehru have criticized the provision of sedition charge in India’s criminal law. It was none other than Mahatma Gandhi who denounced Sec. 124A as far back as 1922 by saying that it was “perhaps the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.”  It is a shame that free India should have retained this section and used it for suppressing opinion that the government of the day objects to. It would be a bad day indeed for India when her citizens would have to show patriotism and act patriotically under the threat of being charged with sedition. The definition of sedition is set by the party in power according to its own light and its political interests. If some people are found to be sitting while the national anthem is played, then there must be something basically wrong with our educational system. Patriotism and patriotic feelings have to come spontaneously from one’s within, not forced from outside.  

Wednesday, 21 December, 2016