Repeal archaic sedition laws

Harihar Swarup
What during the British Raj was sedition was patriotism to Indians. However, once India attained independence, the sedition laws remained the same. Now decades after independence, is it not ironic that if an Indian citizen violates sedition laws, he is liable to be punished as during the British rule? The maximum punishment for violation of this anachronistic colonial law is life imprisonment.
When 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 colonial government or India’s people. Sedition, a repressive colonial law was enacted after the 1857 revolt, when British created rules to imprison anyone causing disaffection against the alien government. Both Gandhi and Tilak were sentenced thereafter on sedition charges.
In independent India, instead of being revoked, the sedition laws have been used against a variety of dissent. The most flagrant case of abuse of sedition laws recently was against paediatrician and civil rights activist Binayak Sen, who was sentenced to life imprisonment, before the Supreme Court released him on bail because it could not find evidence of sedition proffered by the Chhattisgarh Government.
The latest victim of this colonial era law was a young cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, arrested for no more than lampooning the corrupt and venal state of affairs in the country. Even if one were to admit that some may find his work offensive or in bad taste, it is bizarre and unpardonable that he should be put behind the bars on charges that include exciting “disaffection” towards or bringing “hatred and contempt” against the Government. To use sedition to silence speech has a long and infamous history in this country.
Apparently, involved with India Against Corruption (IAC) campaign, Trivedi’s worst crime had been artwork highlighting corruption. This underlines another disturbing trend-the growing targeting of cartoons by a nervous political class. It is said when satire and wit blend with comic strokes, what emerges is a potent combination, a deadly potion, a cartoon that can hit governments harder than a thousand word editorial can.
Because of a serious economic slowdown and several social challenges, political leaders busied themselves recently with first criticizing Shankar’s 64-year-old cartoon showing Ambedkar and Nehru – ironically, a fan of Shankar himself – and then setting up a committee towards weeding out such images from text books. In spite of most unpalatable insinuations, even the British government did not ban reproduction of cartoons in textbooks or crack down on cartoonists.
The new political insecurity has recast what was considered a perfectly respectable profession-sketching cartoons-as inherently subversive. And, this trend has been reinforced by archaic colonial era laws against sedition on the statute books. It is time to abolish such laws that circumscribe Indian citizens democratic rights. Last year, the then Law Minister, Veerappa Moily, had noted how the sedition law had become outmoded in modern times. As the Trivedi case shows the sedition laws tend to be abused. It deserves to be swiftly eliminated from the statute books.
We Indians got both our cartoon and the sedition law from British. Over the years, cartoon came into its own in a stylized and independent version that is hugely popular. The two have carried on all these decades, including 21 months of Emergency and censorship. But cartoon is no longer what it used to be in the days of Shankar, Kutty, Abu and Vijayan. Till about late eighties, a leader was recognized more by his caricature than even the photograph. So much so that older leaders collected and displayed their caricatures in their work places.
Who is Aseem Trivedi?  He is a young budding cartoonist of 25. Few had known his name till he hit the headlines for making some objectionable sketches and booked under sedition laws. Shortly before he was pasted on the TV screens for the wrong reasons, he was selected for an award for launching the Cartoon Against Corruption website, in an effort to mobilize his fellow citizens against India’s pervasive political corruption. The award is presented to a cartoonist in great danger or who has demonstrated exceptional courage in the exercise of free-speech rights.
Aseem’s arrest on the complaint of a Mumbai lawyer who took umbrage at Trivedi’s anti-corruption, especially in the one that re-interpreted the Ashok Chakra, the national emblem, in which wolves replaced the three lions to show rampant corruption. His cartoons also show grand round parliament building and the Constitution of India in bad light and were very harsh on lawmakers and framers of the Constitution. Doubtless, these cartoons were nasty but to accuse him of sedition and arrest him was grossly unjust. (IPA)


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