‘The Great Repression’: The history of sedition in India     

Section 124A will complete its 150 years this year, and its continued presence is a reminder of many similarities between the colonial and the post-colonial Indian State

‘The Great Repression’: The history of sedition in India      


In the last two months, we have come across several cases of sedition being slapped against a range of people across India. A single mother of an 11-year-old was charged with sedition after her daughter participated in a purportedly anti-CAA play in Bidar, Karnataka. One JNU student, Sharjeel Imam, was charged with sedition for a speech he gave during an anti-CAA protest. More than 50 people were booked for sedition in Mumbai for raising pro-Sharjeel Imam Slogans! These are some of the sedition cases which have grabbed headlines across the country in the last few months.

Given that it’s raining sedition charges in an otherwise winter season, what can be the best time to read through the history of infamous sedition law i.e. Section 124 –A of the Indian Penal Code. Advocate Chitranshul Sinha’s The Great Repression: The Story of Sedition in India, published by Penguin India, is a timely book that weaves the history and socio-legal aspects of this controversial law quite lucidly. Divided into three sections with eleven chapters, Sinha’s book reads like a story, moving from one anecdote to another, while educating the reader about the origin, evolution, and application of the sedition law in both colonial and post-colonial India. Sinha’s book is like a primer on sedition law and anyone who is concerned about free speech and misuse of Section 124A should read this work.

The first section deals with the historical context of the sedition law. The history of sedition law is intertwined with the history of the Indian freedom movement. In the aftermath of the 1857 revolt, the ruling powers over India were passed over to the British crown, which then leads to the first-ever attempt to codify criminal law in India. The Indian Penal Code came into being in 1860, after the recommendations of the first law commission which was headed by Thomas Babington Macaulay. Initially, section 124A was not a part of the original IPC and was only inducted in 1870 in chapter IV of the IPC which deals with offenses against the state. This induction came in the context of the rising Wahhabi Movement which aimed to overthrow the British rule.

Interestingly, Sinha also talks about another act which was brought by the British government to put restrictions on plays and artistic expressions critical of the state. The Dramatic performances Act of 1876 was introduced to “prevent performances of a seditious, defamatory or scandalous nature”, and it continued to survive in the post-Independence period and it was only repealed in 2017. But the essence of that archaic law remains which can be seen in the Bidar case.

In the second section, the book charts out the history of the application of this law in colonial India. Though the law was inducted into the IPC in 1870, the first trial under it was conducted only in 1891, i.e. after 21 years in the backdrop of assertive Vernacular Press and rising Nationalism. TheBangobasicase as it came to be known as the first such case where the trail was done under sedition law. The publisher of the journal was booked for sedition for an article that allegedly aroused ‘disaffection’ against the colonial state. The two words ‘disaffection’ and ‘disapprobation’, which forms the core of the section 124A, has been at the core of controversy over interpretation and application of this law.

This controversy and debate over the sedition law became most evident in the case of one of the most famous cases of sedition trails in the history of India, i.e. the case of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who was booked under this law thrice. His cases also lead to several changes in the language of sedition law, where attempts were made to strike a balance between sedition and freedom to criticize the state. In all these cases at the centre of the debate were a few articles which were written and speeches which were made. An interesting thing which we learn from the Sinha’s expose of the history of this law is about how different people, accused of sedition, dealt with it in courts. In the early phase of the Indian freedom movement, those who were accused of sedition tried to challenge their cases in courts and pleaded non-guilty. But in the heydays of the Indian freedom movement, after the entry of Mahatma Gandhi, those accused of sedition like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad pleaded guilty to charges of sedition without trials. Mahatma Gandhi in response to charges on him said, “affection cannot be measured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence”.

In the third section of the book, Sinha deals with the life of sedition law in the Republic. The sedition law was used to stifle the voice of the Indian freedom movement during the colonial period by the all-powerful colonial state. So it was but natural that those who had suffered under the law would unequivocally call for its removal from the IPC and any word related to sedition. But what happened was on the contrary. Two of the most prominent members of the Constituent Assembly, namely Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and C. Rajgopalchari, wanted restrictions of seditious speech while others wanted total removal of any such restrictions. But even though the Constituent Assembly vigorously debated on sedition and freedom of speech, the controversial section 124A of the IPC remains.

In the post-colonial period, the law has been used to stifle any dissent or political opposition right from the early years of the Republic. Sinha has reflected on how the prevailing political atmosphere can have an impact on the interpretation of laws. As sedition charges continued to be slapped against activists and political opponent one after another in the years following Independence, the high courts and the Supreme Court tried to strike a balance between Freedom of Speech and Expression granted under Indian Constitution and offences against Indian State. The historic Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar judgment is today the common law in cases related to sedition.

In the last chapter appropriately titled ‘Stories of Sedition’, Sinha has cited several cases where sedition was slapped on activists, individuals and also entire villages to bring to the fore the absurdity of this law which is in direct contravention with the ideals of Freedom of Speech. He has also commented on the sad state of Indian judicial as well as the police system, where people in authority are not aware of or either willfully ignore the proper criminal procedure code when it comes to booking someone for sedition. He quotes a senior police officer who accepts that sedition law is mainly used to terrorise people who dare to challenge the State.

In the penultimate pages of the book, Sinha raises an important question regarding the “continued existence of Section 124A, despite the presence of the UAPA” which covers crimes against the State and is framed in similar language as Section 124A.

Sinha does not provide any answer to this important question which he has raised, probably to make the readers speculate on the possible answers. As a reader, one possible answer to this question lies in the conflation of the State with the nation. Section 124A criminalises offences against the State, but in the popular public imagination, the word ‘sedition’ is translated into ‘anti-nation’ or ‘deshdroh’, instead of its actual meaning i.e. anti-State. This popular translation strikes an emotional chord with Indian masses, thereby making it easy for the government to delegitimise protests and protesters. So when former Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, during the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign, said “If voted to power again, the BJP will make provisions of the sedition law more stringent to check anti-national activities,” the crowd rejoiced with loud cheers!

Section 124A will complete its 150 years this year, and its continued presence is a reminder of many similarities between the colonial and the post-colonial Indian State. Since its very beginning, the objective of this law was to strengthen the State vis-à-vis Indian people, and the continued use of this section to hound social and political activists is a glaring reminder, of how little has changed as far as the relationship between the Indian State and Indian people is concerned.

Given that people are booked with sedition on the whims and fancies of the authorities, Sinha’s book is quite timely as it introduces the reader with what counts as ‘sedition’. At the same time, while Sinha makes a case for removal of this section, he comes short of outlining what could be done to get rid of this law and what course of action should the advocates of free speech follow in order to put pressure so that this draconian section be repealed.

(The writer is a doctoral student at Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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