The slapping of sedition charges against noted Assamese scholar Hiren Gohain and two others for remarks made against the proposed citizenship law is a textbook case of misuse of the law relating to sedition. The FIR against Mr. Gohain, peasant rights activist Akhil Gogoi and journalist Manjit Mahanta relates to speeches at a recent rally that alluded to the possibility of a demand for independence and sovereignty if the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was pushed through Parliament. Mr. Gohain and others have obtained interim bail from the Gauhati High Court. The registration of the case has caused much public outrage in Assam. In addition to Section 124A (sedition), they have been accused of entering into a criminal conspiracy to “wage war against the government of India” (Section 121) and “concealing a design to facilitate” such a war (Section 123). The action of the police in charging them with “offences against the state” under the Indian Penal Code is quite reprehensible. It is possible that speeches at the rally organised by the Forum Against the Citizenship Amendment Bill contained strident opposition to the legislative changes that would allow persecuted non-Muslims from three neighbouring countries to obtain Indian citizenship. The thrust of the protest, therefore, would be squarely covered by the exception to the sedition clause, which says comments expressing disapprobation of government measures with a view to obtaining their alteration do not constitute an offence, as long as there is no incitement to violence or disaffection. Mr. Gohain, a Sahitya Akademi awardee, and one of Assam’s best known public intellectuals, has explained that he had intervened more than once to silence some youth who had talked about invoking their sovereignty if the Centre continued to ignore their demand.
In recent years, there have been many instances of State governments seeking to silence political dissent by accusing dissenters of promoting disaffection. It is precisely to prevent such a heavy-handed response to strident political criticism that courts have often pointed out that the essential ingredient of any offence of sedition is an imminent threat to public order. Unless there is actual incitement to take up arms or resort to violence, even demands that go against the legal or constitutional scheme of things would not amount to sedition. Mere expression of critical views, howsoever scathing, cannot be an excuse for accusing someone of planning to wage war or promote disaffection against the government. It is against such a backdrop that the Law Commission, in a consultation paper released last year, had called for a reconsideration of the sedition section in the IPC. While the provision, which is couched in broad terms, needs a much narrower definition, the right course is to scrap Section 124A, a relic of the colonial era, altogether.