Decoding sedition, preventive detention, unlawful activities, armed forces special powers.
Once upon a time a group of traders came to India from a cold distant land called Britain. Bit by bit they took over the country and came to rule through a combination of trickery and tyranny. They built up their system of rule around an elaborate scheme of laws governing all areas of people’s lives. Each time the Indian masses rose to oppose British rule, more stringent laws were brought in to sustain their regime.
Law of Sedition and Other Colonial Laws
Thus, soon after the First War of Independence in 1857 was crushed, the British Crown brought in the Indian Penal Code 1860, where the initial chapters defining crime were all political and dealt severely with offences against the state, armed forces, public tranquility, etc. Later, as discontent continued, the British introduced Section 124A, which prescribed life imprisonment for the “crime” of sedition. It defined sedition as an attempt to excite “disaffection towards the government established by law”. It was soon used repeatedly against all leaders of the independence movement, including Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, Annie Besant and others. Gandhi in his defence statement in court said, “Section 124 A under which I am happily charged is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by the law.” History proved him right. Section 124A did not succeed in gaining any affection of the Indian people for the British Crown.
But that did not stop the Britishers from introducing other laws to try to halt the rising tide of disaffection of the Indian masses. They brought in Preventive Detention laws like the Defence of India Act 1915 to imprison political activists even before they committed any offence. The Rowlatt Act – called the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act 1919 – was the first “anti-terror” law designed to suppress revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh. When all these failed and the masses took to the streets during the Quit India movement, the British brought the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Ordinance, 1942 giving powers to armed forces personnel to shoot to kill the protesters agitating for Quit India, without fear of prosecution. But all these were of no avail and the movement against British Rule went on rising, finally forcing them to retreat and hand over power to another set of rulers from the Congress in 1947.
New Rulers, Same Laws
Post 1947, it was naturally expected that the new government had the affection of the people and did not need any of these laws. As Gandhi had said and British experience had shown, affection could not be manufactured by law. The Constitution, which came into effect in 1950, guaranteed freedom of thought, expression and association, the right to life and liberty, and various other fundamental rights which were to override all the repressive enactments of the British period. The government would now win the affection of the people by its actions, not demand it by fiat.
But that was not to be. The Constitution itself allowed preventive detention and the Preventive Detention Act 1950 was introduced within a few weeks of the Constitution coming into force. This was supposed to be a temporary measure for one year, but it lasted for 19 years. It was then replaced, within two years, by the Maintenance of Internal Security Act 1971, the notorious preventive detention law used widely during the Emergency of 1975-77. This was withdrawn by the post-emergency government in 1978, only to be substituted by a new preventive detention law, the National Security Act, 1980, which is in use to this day.
The First Amendment to the Constitution provided another indicator of how soon the new rulers would revert to the ways of the British. It was brought to restrict Article 19(1)(a), the right guaranteeing freedom of expression, because the courts had ruled in favour of certain political magazines critical of the government. Later, when the High Courts struck down Section 124A as being ultra vires of the Constitution, the government fought in the Supreme Court to preserve sedition law in the statute books. The Supreme Court preserved Section 124A but prescribed that it should only be applied when there was a direct incitement to violence.
This of course was not to be. Sedition today is being applied in more harsh and absurd ways than ever before. Award-winning Doctor Binayak Sen has been sentenced to life imprisonment for providing human rights assistance to Maoist accused prisoners; Kashmiri students in Meerut who cheered Pakistan during a cricket match on TV faced sedition charges which soon had to be removed; a Muslim youth who did not stand during the National Anthem in a movie-house in Kerala is in jail for sedition; and more than seven thousand cases of sedition have been registered against opponents of a nuclear plant in Koodankulam, Tamil Nadu.
The “anti-terror” Rowlatt Act too was brought back in much harsher form, first with the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act 1986, then with the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2001 and now with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. And for places like the North-East and Kashmir, where the level of disaffection of the people towards the government is seen by the authorities to be as high as it was towards the British during the Quit India movement, the government has enacted the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958. It is a copy of the British Ordinance of 1942 with the difference that the British government gave power to order shooting to kill to the level of Captain and above, whereas our government has given the same power to even a non-commissioned officer who is several ranks below.
Thus we have the irony of a situation where, sixty-seven years after the end of British rule and almost sixty-five years after the Constitution, we have in use all the repressive laws that the imperial rulers had unsuccessfully deployed to hold down the Indian people. Many of the laws have had harsher provisions added to them, but there are no signs that they are achieving the objective of reducing the disaffection of the people they are targeted against.
Naturally many democratic rights organisations and activists are campaigning for the repeal of these colonial-type oppressive laws. Since these laws are basically undemocratic, many would like to see them join the list of obsolete and archaic British period laws that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has vowed to junk by January 26, 2015. But there is no likelihood of such desires being fulfilled. As struggles of the people continue to grow, these laws are being used frequently and more intensively. If anything, these laws are only likely to get further strengthened and entrenched.