A trembling, disillusioned father told his daughter to flee her homeland for her safety. This seems like a plot taken straight from a classic wartime story fraught with separation and grief. In reality, such was the conversation my friend had with her father following the unlawful arrests of activists. The Disha Ravi toolkit case was the last straw.
The ‘buts’ to the freedom of speech in India only seem to point to a dictatorial reality, much like that of Airstrip One in George Orwell’s 1984, where even the mere thought of protest is met with prosecution. It bore an uncanny resemblance to the arrest of comic Munawar Faruqui which was entirely based on the oral account of a man in association with the ruling party. Much after the arrest, the police admitted that there was a lack of evidence which eventually led the Supreme Court to grant him bail since the arrest was made on ‘vague’ grounds. Witnesses claimed that the show hadn’t even started before it was interrupted by the complainant who allegedly heard the comic rehearse his jokes backstage.
The silence of the government on Arnab Goswami’s act of treason is only deafening. It was office-holding MPs from the ruling party that screamed ‘freedom of press’ and made a savior of a flawed mortal when he was arrested by the Mumbai police last year. A strange chain of events transpired at the Singhu border a month later, when a journalist was arrested and abused for reporting the ongoing farmers protest and allegedly obstructing the police in their duties. He reported that he shared his cell with other farmers who had been arrested without formal charges. “The government gives us wounds, and the only way I could heal them was through my report”, he said in an interview.
One can’t help but think about the fate of the unwitting farmers in jail slapped with a torrent of charges. Meanwhile, a Dalit activist protesting against the farm laws was arrested and assaulted by the police for allegedly attacking police officials. She was granted bail by the Punjab and Haryana High Court for lack of evidence. A pattern has begun to emerge–dissent, arrest, and bail (or not) complete with false narratives and murky details for exercising the democratic right of freedom of speech guaranteed in the Constitution. If only trending Twitter hashtags was the solution! Justice Rana’s landmark verdict comes to mind where he surmised that the freedom of speech and expression transcended even the geopolitical borders of the country, as there are no barriers on communication.
The Indian Penal Code (IPC) which formally took effect in 1860 under the British Raj reinforced the ruler-ruled relationship between the Raj and the Indian citizens. A glance at the first edition of 1860 reveals the clear disparity between the (lack of) rights of the citizens and the detailed list of acts which qualified as ‘offences’. It became crucial to enact the previously shelved draft after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Thus, an elaborate Chapter VI titled ‘offences against the State’ came into being with the seemingly innocuous Section 124A nestled. This section has a generous tempering of the words ‘disaffection’, and ‘disapprobation’.
Interestingly, the people in power decided what constituted disaffection and disapprobation, and who sowed these feelings. This muzzle has only been handed to an Independent India placed on the tray of the Constitution. Gandhiji’s dissent was seditious and so is Disha Ravi’s, Sudha Bharadwaj’s and Safoora Zargar’s. Dissent in any form, spoken or written, is also conveniently subsumed under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) if the Government ‘believes’ it to be a threat to India’s sovereignty and integrity. Activists charged under this can even be denied bail. The amendment to the act in 2019, vested power in the State to label individuals as ‘terrorists’ and deny them their right to redressal.
A case of collective amnesia has gripped us with regard to Section 124A which specifies the incitement to violence as a prerequisite for pressing charges under it. In interviews with former attorney generals Mukul Rohatgi, and Soli Sorabjee, they opined that incitement to imminent violence was the basis for classifying an act as seditious. Surprisingly, K.M. Munshi, who saw the Independence struggle through, proposed an amendment to the constitution to rid sedition. He supported his opinion by claiming that criticism of the government was the essence of democracy. What is our democratic identity anyway? A democracy that is quick to take offence, but that hardly ever stops to introspect. A democracy that believes in jail, not bail. A democracy that brazenly mocks its Constitution.
Today, these laws continue to be an assault on the freedom of speech and expression, and the concept of democracy at large. Most activists are slapped with these charges in a bid to invalidate their cause and silence them. This abuse of the law is not peculiar to the current government, but it is the rate at which arrests are being made for sedition that is at an alarming high (according to reports by NCRB). This explains why this law has come under severe ire from liberals in the country especially backed by a 1971 report of the Law Commission that proposed a complete scrapping of this law. The report also proposed a complete revision and overhaul of the IPC, an issue that was taken up only in 2018 by Amit Shah, the result of which is awaited. Our laws are often vague and leave a lot to individual discretion which makes for fanciful interpretations. In this perhaps, a revision and if need be, an entire overhaul of the IPC can prove useful. But, the abuse of the legal system facilitated by the lack of awareness about it will continue to render us vulnerable. As long as this continues, we can expect the ‘Big Brother’ to control what we see, what we read, and who we become. It’s much easier to govern subjects that hear nothing, see nothing, and speak nothing.
Abhinaya Sridhar is an undergraduate student of English literature. She enjoys documenting her personal experiences and opinions and occasionally indulges in writing fiction. She is a creature of habit and can be found listening to the same classical songs on loop or cooking up a storm in the kitchen. She can be found on Instagram