Judiciary Reviews

‘The Great Repression’ review: Colonial law, native masters

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A history of the sedition decree in India and why it is still in use

Codification of laws was a defining modernist project in 19th century Britain. The idea was extended to India too, then a British colony. Codified laws, and labelled and enumerated social categories, were instruments of colonial understanding and used to control the native population. The notion of sedition enters the vocabulary of crime and punishment in this context.

The penal code of India, drafted by Thomas Macaulay in 1837, defined as offence if someone “by words, either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs, or by visible representation attempts to excite feelings of disaffection to the Government.” The language has not changed significantly even decades after India transitioned to an independent republic. The relevance of sedition as a crime has been judicially challenged several times but each time it has managed to survive. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code remains, and more laws have been added to deal with people thought to be insufficiently loyal to the government or the country.

Targeting the vulnerable?

Occasional attempts by the judiciary to limit the use of 124A have not borne fruit. From cartoonists to peaceful marchers and tribals raising their voice against injustice, and Jawaharlal Nehru University students shouting slogans, the sledgehammer of sedition is falling on citizens with alarming frequency. Recently, news reports said a district administration in Jharkhand has charged 10,000 Adivasis with sedition, for disturbing ‘public order’ — a loose term that law enforcement agencies use to target the most vulnerable. They had run a campaign called Pathalgadi, which literally means the laying of stones. They erected stone slabs engraved with the provisions of the Indian Constitution that guarantees special rights for tribals.

Whether criticising the government or mobilising public opinion against it constitutes sedition has been a question long settled — these actions are not. But sedition law is used in such cases even today, and the Supreme Court, in a recent case did not lay down the principles and merely stated that it had done so in 1962. Whether the government can demand the affection of the citizenry is a more fundamental question.

M.K. Gandhi was confronted with this question, charged with sedition, after the Chauri Chaura incident in 1922. He had no difficulty in pleading guilty as charged. He went on to declare that spreading disaffection against the colonial government was his “imperative duty.” He said, sedition was the creed of the Congress party.

The first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, too had been punished under sedition law, and thought it was an anachronism in a free republic. But the founding fathers leaned towards a strong state to deal with the birth pangs of the nation. Now, the pursuit of national greatness has created a fresh environment that is extremely intolerant of criticism and questions. The colonial law appears to have come in handy for native masters.

This book is a narrative history of the long-drawn and lingering question of sedition, and it confines itself to that.

The Great Repression; Chitranshul Sinha, Penguin Random House India, ₹499.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 4:56:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/the-great-repression-review-colonial-law-native-masters/article30214155.ece

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