The Supreme Court’s interim order of putting on hold criminal proceedings in cases booked under Section 124 A of the IPC has not come a day early. Wanton exercise of this stringent provision that directly impinges on civil liberties and fundamental rights has been a matter of concern and embarrassment as it directly affronts the right to criticise the governments in power.
Criticism and dissent are the very breath of democracy. When criticism and divergence of views are considered blasphemous and seditious in intent, the corrective value of criticism is completely overlooked and discounted. Besides, by invoking the most strident IPC provision against anyone who voices dissent, the message is loud and clear: dissent is unwelcome and it invites dangerous consequences, including incarceration without bail. Once dissenting voices are silenced and power is left unquestioned, democracy wilts; it mutates. The much awaited Supreme Court intervention has larger ramifications and redemptive value. It could serve our democracy from its propensity for insularity and pathology of self-adulation.
Why should sedition law become a handy tool for the state? It has been in the statute book for over a century but until a decade ago, it was applied only sparingly. But in the recent past, students who are champions of Constitutional freedoms, activists urging proactive policies to mitigate climate change, journalists trying to gather inputs for reports on atrocities against Dalits, humanitarian workers who rebelled against indifference, inaction and exploitation of administrative machinery, writers and artists pioneering freedom of expression and criticising government policies, human rights activists struggling to get justice for the oppressed have all been callously booked under 124A, arrested and allowed to languish in jails with the remote hope of bail.
It is not only an abuse of a grave provision of the IPC, but mechanical and myopic invocation of this section takes away its gravity as it blurs the essential difference between real acts of sedition and genuine divergence of views and criticism of government. Sedition is an act of dissent but all dissent is not sedition. The colonial rulers had justification to invoke this provision when disaffection to the British Empire was spreading like wildfire. However, a sovereign democratic state cannot justify hyper-sensitivity to criticism and compulsion to invoke UAPA or sedition law based on far-fetched inferences and fanciful suspicions.
There is a social context that has made it possible to casually invoke 124A. Imaginary concerns and phobias based on religious identities and political differences have created distances and otherness through carefully crafted political and communication strategies. Social media platforms and electronic media have been used with dangerous consequences. By consistently harping on the message of ‘otherness,’ imagined fears and malicious misinformation, mistrust and disaffection among religious communities have become a lethal presence in social psyche. The change has been gradual and consistent. To understand the extent to which this ethos has altered our perceptions and reactions, we should visualise the natural innocence of our minds a few years ago. One would be dismayed by the scale of transformation. For instance, we hardly noticed that the once sacrosanct word secular has lost its primacy, luster, beauty and inevitability.
It is this altered state of mind that finds eating beef obnoxious, wearing hijab incongruous, using loudspeakers irksome and taking out religious processions provocative. It is this lowered threshold of tolerance to criticism of governments that demonises students for playing a different tune. Such acts create new schisms in society and disturb the accepted social fabric. The state’s intolerance to listen to dissent or divergent views invalidates dialogue that is the hallmark of democracy. Society begins to suffocate by its inability to air alternative views and gets distressed by witnessing the real and imagined distances that mar social neighbourhoods.
Human beings are social animals. Artificial spaces that obstruct the familiar and congenial social concourse cannot last long as the natural instinct of being together overpowers the forces of divisiveness. This becomes all the more compelling when a society confronts common calamities. The pandemic induced 30 months of privation and economic misery endured by all sections (except the affluent and the salaried), the consequent fall in the quality of life, the increasing cost of living and the fall in real income, widespread job losses, agricultural distress, spiraling prices and other collective suffering has naturally brought people together, breaking free from the manufactured compartments.
A new accommodative ethos seems to be emerging in the country. A few instances of temples organising iftar, mosques making special arrangements for temple celebrations and such unmistakable acts of mutual understanding have been reported. They might be episodic in nature but an underlying urge to break the chains of narrow-mindedness and exclusion is unmistakable. It could be the onset of a process of social self correction that foretells the arrival of the spring of secular brotherhood that is endemic to the Indian mind. The Supreme Court’s order freezing the sedition law, though temporarily, is a welcome and timely watering of this new sapling of a counter culture of social amity.
Former Kerala chief secretary firstname.lastname@example.org