Several perfectly honourable men and women have been charged with sedition

2014-07-26 , Issue 30 Volume 11


He may be controversial. He may also be an aide of the equally controversial yoga guru Baba Ramdev. But does that mean that Ved Pratap Vaidik, who has created a huge tumult by meeting Hafiz Saeed, ceases to be a journalist just because of the company he keeps and the kind of journalism he does? Does that mean that he should be accused of sedition just because of meeting Saeed? As irony would have it, the sedition clause itself has been called too anachronistic to remain on the statute book. Recent experience has shown that it has been periodically used against rights activists, journalists and intellectuals.

The latest target of this colonial era law may have his share of detractors. But tomorrow, if someone seeks to meet a Maoist or some such “unmentionable” category in official parlance, does that by itself qualify him or her to be put behind bars? One may say that it was a cheeky gimmick to have met a notorious terrorist wanted by the Indian State, but does that entitle him to be booked for sedition? Does it not sound bizarre when the definition of sedition in the statute book is itself so hazy?

One may question Vaidik’s credentials, but those who do so should realise that tomorrow, a perfectly legitimate interview or meeting with someone considered “dangerous” may land a well-meaning journalist, activist or intellectual in trouble. This happened in the case of a young cartoonist, Aseem Trivedi, who was arrested for no more than lampooning the corrupt and venal state of affairs prevailing in the country. Let us presume for the sake of argument that Trivedi’s work was considered offensive by some or was in bad taste, but isn’t it utterly bizarre and incongruous that he should be put behind bars on charges that include exciting “disaffection” towards or bringing “hatred and contempt” against the government?

The use of sedition to silence speech has a long and, if one may say, infamous history. Mahatma Gandhi was charged with exciting disaffection in 1922: He pleaded guilty, saying that “affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law”. Prosecuted twice, Bal Gangadhar Tilak sought to know whether he was guilty of sedition against the colonial government or India’s people.

Recently, the sedition law was misapplied to convict civil rights activist Binayak Sen and register a case against writer Arundhati Roy and others for speeches they made on a controversial issue like Kashmir.

That the law exists should be understood in its proper context. While upholding the sedition law, the Supreme Court said it should apply only to cases where an accused intended to create public disorder or incite violence. However, in carrying out arrests and slapping charges, the police and their political masters have rarely, if ever, respected this restriction. In the wake of the ruling against Sen, the official line was that there was a need to review the sedition law. With the continuing misuse of the law, however, experts said that there is only one reasonable course: scrap it at once, and as soon as possible. What constitutes sedition has become a deeply subjective issue, which necessitates that it should be taken off the statute book. Definitional ambiguity gives governments and busybodies the handle to exercise an insidious form of censorship and control that goes well beyond whatever “reasonable restrictions” on free speech that the Constitution allows.

The best option in the circumstances is to ignore Vaidik’s meeting because it carried no legitimate sanction. One may quite rightly question his actual game plan. But not for a moment should one forget that from Gandhi onwards, several well-meaning individuals have courted controversies for what they believe is their right. Vaidik may not have been governed by very noble or journalistic motives. But to suggest that his publicity stunt constitutes sedition is ridiculous in the extreme.

There is also another question that is waiting to be answered. Is it permissible for some sections considered “safe” by the establishment to take recourse to Track-II diplomacy, while others who are not similarly anointed are hounded for their “transgressions”?


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