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What is sedition in India and why is it a hot topic of debate?

What is sedition in India and why is it a hot topic of debate?

The din in Indian media has escalated tonight. Social media is abuzz; most television channels are debating a law enacted by the British – under Thomas Macaulay in 1870s—that allows for imprisonment for “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".

In recent years that law has been used by the police to apprehend people for liking “a Facebook post, criticising a yoga guru, cheering a rival cricket team, drawing cartoons, asking a provocative question in a university exam, or not standing up in a cinema when the national anthem is being played,” as reported by the BBC in 2016.

The latest use of the colonial law was the Delhi police that booked Kanhaiya Kumar, a former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students’ union, and some of his associates from the same institution, for raising “anti India” slogans during a gathering.

The incident in question occurred three years ago when a bunch of students from JNU were staging a protest against the death penalty handed to Afzal Guru, a militant held to be a terrorist by the country’s top court after it held him guilty for a gun attack outside the Indian Parliament in 2001.

The students in the spotlight today were arrested in 2015, soon after the incident, but the court let them out on bail while the investigation carried on. News reports alleged that charges against Kumar and others were based on a doctored video, a charge that the Delhi police has ruled out with its move today.

The incident shot Kumar—who is aligned with a left-wing outfit-- to fame and gave him political stage to voice his views to a larger audience. He is a staunch critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The country’s polarized media has positioned itself with or against Kumar based on their ideological positions and the topic is hogging prime-time debates.

The politics aside, the provision to arrest a person for sedition is a law that has criticized at the highest levels in India for over five decades now. When the British used the law as a tool to suppress rebellion in India, Mahatma Gandhi, who was charged with sedition, famously said the law was "designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen".

In 1951, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru described the law as "highly objectionable and obnoxious". In 1962, the Supreme Court imposed limits on the use of the law, making incitement to violence a necessary condition.

The law itself put to a review as late as last year but the enforcement agencies have been keen time and again to use an archaic law to put down any kind of dissent.

It’s 2019 and no political party in the country has made any real difference by doing away with a law that has repeatedly been used to stifle political opposition, despicably at times.


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