Kanhaiya Kumar vs the State: A Brief History of Sedition in India

Politics

Kanhaiya Kumar vs the State: A Brief History of Sedition in India

Illustration: Akshita Monga

“You can only lose what you cling to,” said the Buddha, a much wiser being than any who are attempting to run the country today. Clinging on to things, specifically events that took place over a thousand days ago, will be the theme of proceedings at the Patiala House Court in Delhi, as the court hears a sedition case that is due to come up today against former Jawaharlal Nehru University students, Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, along with seven others.

In February 2016, Kumar, Khalid, and like-minded students from JNU held a rally in Delhi to mark the day that the terrorist Afzal Guru was surreptitiously hanged, which led to clashes with members of the BJP’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Though the incident occurred nearly three whole years ago, it took until this week for the Special Cell of the Delhi Police to file a chargesheet against the student activists. Everyone procrastinates their paperwork, but perhaps the Delhi Police were going for a world record in this case.

Or maybe there is more to the sedition accusations than mere inefficiency. The long delay that punctuates the years between the actual rally and the filing of the case before the court smacks of convenient timing – with the General Elections only a few months away, expect hyper-nationalistic rhetoric to be dialled up, and accusations of sedition and “anti-Indian” practices to fly thick and fast. Kumar himself referred to the charges of sedition as “a diversionary ploy by the Modi government to hide its all-round failures.”

The BJP might have come to power by distinguishing itself from its predecessor, but by attempting to label student activists as seditionists it is following closely in the footsteps of UPA-II.

That view isn’t surprising considering he’s involved in the case. But he isn’t the only one to have misgivings about the case’s timing – P Chidambaram referred to the charges as “absurd”; the Times of India commented on the “mysterious delay of over 900 days”, and JNUSU’s statement on the matter identified the whole matter as “a clear case of vendetta and well-planned instruction from the Prime Minister’s office.”

The BJP might have come to power by distinguishing itself from its predecessor, but by attempting to label student activists as seditionists it is following closely in the footsteps of UPA-II. The Congress-led government had brought charges of sedition against cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in 2012. Like the BJP government today, the UPA alliance was on shaky ground, with scams tumbling out of their closet like so many skeletons. The grassroots Lokpal movement spearheaded by Anna Hazare had dragged the government through the muck before the people, and Trivedi’s cartoons mocking the Parliament and National Symbols were too much for the establishment to take.

Trivedi is far from the only individual targeted by an insecure state machinery. In 2007, Dr Binayak Sen was arrested on the same charge in Chhattisgarh, for allegedly acting as a go-between for a jailed Naxalite leader and his accomplices. Sen insisted that his visits to the Naxalite in prison were vetted by the police, but was still arrested and jailed, even as international outcry mounted. The BJP might want to take measures to ensure it doesn’t become the spiritual sequel of the Congress when it comes to suppressing dissenters.

Clearly, the sedition laws of the country, specifically Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, provide an opportunity for the government to clamp down on unpopular opinions and unruly individuals. This is not surprising, given that the law is – like so many other archaic and oft-misused laws in this country – a relic of the British Raj. Drafted by the infamous Thomas Macaulay in the 1870s, it was even used to prosecute Mahatma Gandhi in 1922, prompting him to remark, “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.” Decades later, after India achieved independence, our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru described it as “highly objectionable and obnoxious”.

In the case of Kumar, Khalid, and the other JNU students, the idea of sedition is being used to drum up panic over an imaginary enemy lurking within the borders of the Indian state.

And yet, things have not changed.

In the case of Kumar, Khalid, and the other JNU students, the idea of sedition is being used to drum up panic over an imaginary enemy lurking within the borders of the Indian state. Even though the charges may not hold up in court, the BJP government will score a virtue-signalling goal by dragging the narrative into the hyper-nationalistic arena they are comfortable fighting in. Given the underwhelming performance over the last five years, fighting activists and critics of the government by labelling them seditionists, or urban naxals, as we saw in the case of Bhima-Koregaon, is an act of diversion and deception worthy of… an Indira Gandhi government.

Bringing up the events of 2016 right around the corner from the Lok Sabha elections is a sign that the BJP is desperate to fight this campaign on its own terms, and not those dictated by the Opposition. And it’s doing so by participating in a well-established trend in Indian politics. When the going gets tough, the tough start accusing their critics of sedition.

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