Law of Sedition: What explains the PM’s sudden U turn and change of heart?

On Saturday the Union of India had maintained before the Supreme Court that it was a 'good law'. On Monday it informed the court of its concerns about misuse of the law. What happened in two days?


AJ Prabal

Three years after the Prime Minister and the Home Minister slammed the Congress for promising to repeal the law of sedition in its manifesto—and barely two days after the Government argued that there was nothing wrong with the law-the PM had a change of heart.

The 1962 judgment by a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court upholding the law was binding and it continued to be a good law and needed no reconsideration, the Government had told the court last week.

In 2019 Congress was criticised for proposing repeal of the sedition law. Arun Jaitley said the Congress party was under the influence of Naxalites and jihadis and did not deserve a single vote for suggesting to scrap the sedition law. The Congress manifesto, declared Amit Shah, the then BJP President, would bring smile to terrorists and separatists and would lower the morale of the armed forces.

When therefore on Monday this week the Union of India filed an affidavit to declare that it intended to review the law, it was a dramatic and astonishing U turn. Surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, the affidavit added gratuitously that Prime Minister Modi had “expressed clear and unequivocal views in favour of protecting civil liberties, respect for human rights and believed that outdated colonial laws had no place in the country”.

The three-page affidavit added, again gratuitously, that PM Modi is cognizant of the various views on the subject and was in favour of shedding the colonial baggage that had passed its utility.

Law of Sedition: What explains the PM’s sudden U turn and change of heart?

Indeed? While the Prime Minister’s opinion and views were irrelevant to determine the constitutionality of the law by the Supreme Court, the affidavit reflected the new culture of sycophancy and governance. Farcically, just two days before Monday, the Union Government had declared in an affidavit that the law had stood the test of time. It in fact suggested it would frame guidelines to stop misuse or abuse of the law.

What changed between Saturday and Monday? What explains the Prime Minister’s change of heart? The Prime Minister’s childhood association with crocodiles being well known, people can be pardoned for wondering if the PM on Monday was shedding crocodile tears.

Petitions challenging the constitutionality of the sedition law were filed following pioneering research conducted for a year by news and research website Article 14. The research revealed that between 2016 and 2019, number of cases filed under Section 124A jumped 160% but the rate of conviction declined to 3%. Maharashtra Congress leader Sachin Sawant claimed that from 2014 to 2019, a total of 326 cases of sedition were filed. “There is no data after 2019,” Sawant said.

Quoting article 14, he said, “A total of 149 cases of sedition were filed for speaking against Narendra Modi and 144 for speaking against (UP CM) Yogi Adityanath.”

As in the case of other draconian laws like the UAPA, especially after the amendment introduced by the soft-hearted PM and his Home Minister, and the PSA in Kashmir, the process is the punishment, explained Lubhyathi Rangarajan, an independent lawyer who headed the research project to create database on sedition. Other members of the core team comprised Tejaswita Kharel and Harini VS with finalyear law students at National Law University, Delhi and KLE Society’s Law College.

Mumbai based journalist Kunal Purohit, in his research paper submitted to article-14, revealed “six sedition cases were filed during the farm protests, 25 during anti-CAA protests, 22 after the Hathras gangrape, and 27 after Pulwama attacks”.

The most charitable explanation is that the Union of India sensed that the Supreme Court would strike down the law as unconstitutional or refer it to a larger bench—and hence tried to make the best of a bad bargain. In a sense the court stole its thunder by effectively suspending the operation of the law.

The PM’s about turn and the change of heart, however, left his critics cold. “It is too good to be true”, they felt even as BJP supporters gushed at the visionary PM’s large heart.

The test for the Government is what it chooses to do with the misuse of other equally draconian laws. If the sedition law is indeed struck down, its victims including Dr Kafeel Khan should surely be entitled to suitable compensation, the critics underlined.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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