In her article “Indefensible, any which way” (Jan. 31) Jyoti Punwani has sought to differentiate Bal Thackeray from Akbaruddin Owaisi by hinting that the alleged crimes committed by the former are less serious than those indulged in by the latter. The rationale offered is (a) While Thackeray never insulted the Prophet, Owaisi abused Hindu deities and beliefs (b) Thackeray targeted the State and the Central governments but Owaisi attacked “Hindustan”. Therefore, asks Ms. Punwani, “When Thackeray accused Muslims of disloyalty, we wanted him prosecuted under Sec 153 A — promoting enmity between communities. When Owaisi spreads feelings of hatred against the country among his community, what should he be charged with?”

Hidden in this leading question is the suggestion that Owaisi deserves to be booked under the sedition law because it is this law (Sec. 124 A of the IPC) which deals with (and prescribes life imprisonment for) attempts to bring into hatred, or excite disloyalty and feelings of enmity towards, any “government established by law” in India. There can be no doubt that Owaisi’s hate speech is indefensible and he deserves to be prosecuted for attempting to provoke a Hindu-Muslim confrontation. But do his rantings amount to sedition? Maybe. Nonetheless, propriety demands that as the matter is sub judice one should refrain from prejudging the matter and allow the courts to decide.

Debating relevance

However, the larger issue that needs to be debated is the relevance of sedition laws in an open society and the justification for their selective imposition as implied by Ms. Punwani. It is common knowledge that the concept of sedition is a colonial construct that was exploited to the hilt by the British to ruthlessly suppress dissent and pro-independence uprisings in their colonies. That laws based on such a demented notion should have been scrapped long back has been vociferously suggested in newspaper editorials and also by several intellectuals including former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju.

The Hindu too, within a space of 18 months, published two hard-hitting editorials against Section 124 A. The first one, “Repeal the sedition law” (April 21, 2011), asserted that “there is no place in a democracy for a law that conflates disaffection with disloyalty and regards trenchant criticism as a form of treason.” The second editorial, “Sedition? Seriously?” (Sep. 11, 2012), sought to explain that “what constitutes an insult, what causes offence, and what can be construed as hate are deeply subjective issues. This ambiguity gives governments the legal handle to exercise an insidious form of censorship and control that goes well beyond the ‘reasonable restrictions’ on free speech the Constitution allows.”

If despite these serious reservations Sec. 124 A is to be retained in our statute books, then sedition itself must be redefined. Strangely, Sec. 124 A criminalises “attempts to excite disaffection” only against “the Government established by law in India.” It is not surprising, therefore, that sedition laws have never been invoked against a particular class of right-wing communalists who, by time and again expressing their dangerous desire of converting this country into a theocratic state, have questioned the very idea of a socialist, secular, democratic India as enshrined in our Constitution. For instance, it has been claimed that there exists a sectarian constituency which proposes “benevolent dictatorship” as the most beneficial form of government because lokshahi, parliamentarian rule, has allegedly failed to provide the long promised development to the Indian nation.

Given this reality, supporters of sedition laws would do well to realise that attempts to subvert our Constitution are equally, if not more, seditious than spreading hatred against the country. Hence, if Sec. 124 A is to stay, the traditionalists should muster enough courage to call for its reformulation so as to bring attempts to undermine our Constitution under the ambit of sedition.

An insinuation

Furthermore, it is unfair to claim that in the case of the Owaisis, “some misguided secularists”, citing inaction against the Shiv Sena, wanted the government to go soft on them. There is no truth in this insinuation. Eminent civil rights activists such as Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, Mahesh Bhatt, Javed Anand, Dr. Ram Puniyani, Praful Bidwai and others did issue a public statement on Jan. 24, 2013 the main thrust of which, apart from condemning Akbaruddin Owaisi, was to show that the charge of sedition alone was unwarranted and not his arrest under other sections of the IPC. The statement also said, with regard to Asaduddin Owaisi’s arrest, that any action against an offender should be immediate and impartial and not a result of vendetta politics.

Certainly there was nothing misguided about this statement or the secularism espoused by the activists. Their emphasis on impartial action against offenders may have been informed by the questionable release of Bal Thackeray within hours of his arrest on July 25, 2000 for his alleged role in 1992-93 Mumbai riots. The Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate had at that time ruled: “As the case is time-barred, the offence cannot be taken cognisance of, as also the State has not explained in its remand explanation the reason for its delay in filing the charge-sheet... the accused is therefore released and the offence registered stands terminated.” One wonders why Ms. Punwani failed to mention this fact while referring to Bal Thackeray’s arrest in her article.

(A. Faizur Rahman is secretary-general of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought. E-mail: faizz@rocketmail.com)

Jyoti Punwani responds:

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