The shameful display of anti-India sentiments on the premises of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the ugly echo of all this in Jadavpur University has left the average citizen stunned. The question on everyone’s lips is, “Is there no law to punish those who challenge the unity and integrity of India?”. Currently, the only law under which such persons can be prosecuted is the controversial Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code, which says: “Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”
This provision deals with the larger question of “disaffection” towards the government and is seen to be draconian. Further, the wording is such that it can impinge on the fundamental right to free speech. Also, it does not deal with the kind of situation one witnessed in JNU on February 9 when spirited slogans were raised to “break up India” and to even condemn the Indian Army. Home Minister Rajnath Singh and his deputy have both gone on record to say that the government will take a fresh look at this law and also consult the Law Commission in this regard.
This is indeed a welcome step because on the face of it, the sedition law appears to be outdated and out of sync with contemporary democratic traditions. While the recent surge of anti-national sentiments amongst a small section of left-leaning academics and students has taken everyone by surprise, the Law Commission appears to have had the legal answer to deal with such elements over four decades ago. After examining Section 124 A of the IPC, the Commission said way back in 1971 that this law needed to be strengthened, consolidated and reviewed. It said the offence of sedition should be redefined including within its purview the exciting of disaffection towards the Constitution, or the government or Parliament of India or the government or the legislature of any state or the administration of justice as by law established.
More importantly, the Law Commission said any criminal intent to endanger the integrity or security of India or of any state or to cause public disorder should be incorporated in the sedition law. The Commission also recommended that deliberate insult to the Constitution, the national flag, the national emblem or the national anthem and desecration of the national flag should be firmly dealt with in the same provision. Over the years, Parliament has made laws to deal with desecration or dishonour to the national flag, national emblem etc, including the Emblems and Names (prevention of improper use) Act, 1950 and the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971. Also we have the Flag Code.
However, no one ever considered a strong penal provision to punish persons who challenge the country’s unity and integrity and hurl abuses at the Indian Army. This lacuna in our law must be dealt with immediately. It must be noted that this law has been invoked for want of anything better. Students of JNU are not the only ones who face prosecution under this law. This charge has been slapped even on Hardik Patel, the young leader of the Pattidar community in Gujarat, who led an agitation that took a rather violent turn some months ago.
Among the slogans raised at the JNU that day were: Afzal Guru, Maqbool Bhat Zindabad; Bharat Ki Barbadi Tak Jung Rahegi, Jung Rahegi; Indian Army Murdabad; Bharat Tere Tukkde Honge I Inshaallah, Inshaallah; and Afzal Ki Hatya Nahi Sahenge, Nahi Sahenge.
All this happened at what was called a “cultural evening”. Also, the students who were behind this put up posters which referred to the “judicial killing” of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat. An inquiry instituted by the Vice-Chancellor of the university has found sufficient evidence of all this.
So, while there is an argument against invoking the current provision relating to sedition, there is an equally strong argument for introduction of penal provisions to deal with individuals who raised such slogans and put up those obnoxious posters in JNU and Jadavpur University, challenging the Indian State, the judicial system, the Indian Army and the country’s unity and integrity. Until the events of February 9 last in JNU, few, except the Law Commission, had realised that we would have a bunch of citizens in India and that too in the heart of the nation’s capital who would challenge national unity and say that they would work towards breaking up the country and even go so far as to raise slogans like “Indian Army Murdabad”. A law to deal with such elements is therefore a must. Also, apart from the sedition law, we need to see what responsibilities are thrust on us by our Constitution.
If you study this document, you will realise what has happened in these universities is a direct assault on our Constitution. In fact, these developments do violence to the Preamble itself, which says: “We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved … to secure to all its citizens: …Fraternity, assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation…”.
It also violates some of the Fundamental Duties imposed on citizens by Article 51 A which says: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India — (a) to abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions, the National Flag and the National Anthem; (b) to cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom; (c) to uphold and protect the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India; …” (words in Italics only for emphasis)
In the light of such emphatic assertions in India’s Constitution, the government must immediately bring in a law to firmly deal with those who question the country’s integrity and sovereignty. The 42nd report of the Law Commission has strongly recommended penal action against individuals who question the nation’s territorial integrity, its judicial system and its Parliament — and these are the very offences committed by those who raised slogans and prepared the posters in JNU. They have launched a direct assault on our constitutional values, national unity, the judiciary, the army and finally, a duly elected government. The government must get an update from the Commission and act without haste. This mischief must be nipped in the bud!
The author is chairperson of Prasar Bharati.