Over 75 years after their independence from the British rule, both India and Pakistan carry on some of the colonial legacies, including pieces of draconian legislation that was supposed to regulate relations between the rulers and the ruled through intimidation and fear. The sedition and contempt of court laws are some of the reminders of the legislative architecture that was a combination of the British rules and regulations and an improvised framework to govern the Indian sub-continent.
Let us look at what the Sedition Law, section 124A in both the Indian Penal Code and Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) states:
“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 federal or provincial government established by law 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.”
In India, sedition cases under the Modi government increased by 28% and since 2014, authorities filed more than 500 cases, involving more than 7,000 people, according to a database compiled by news website Article-14.
This rampant misuse of the sedition prompted the Indian Supreme Court in May 2022 to stop invoking this law, saying it is “not in tune with the current social milieu, and was intended for a time when this country was under the colonial regime”. In an interim order, the court urged the Centre and the state governments to refrain from registering any FIRs under the said provision until the Centre re-examines the British-era law.
While appearing in court in 1922, Indian iconic leader Mahatma Gandhi called the law the “prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”. He was sentenced to six years in prison.
“A century later, and, this law remains a powerful tool used by the authorities to criminalise dissent and arrest peaceful critics of the government. The Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is carrying out an escalating crackdown on civil society, targeting activists, journalists, students, academics, members of religious minorities, and peaceful protesters using sedition and other draconian laws,” wrote Linda Lakhdhir Legal Adviser, Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division (https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/07/18/sedition-law-why-india-should-break-britains-abusive-legacy).
The law, argued Ms Lakhdhir, also violates article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which India ratified in 1979. Under the covenant, restrictions on expression must be narrowly drawn on principles of necessity and proportionality to curtail speech as little as possible, she said, urging the Parliament to overturn this law.
The situation in Pakistan is no different: politicians from nearly all parties have from time to time faced sedition charges. Reckless police officials don’t spare even students when trying to tame protests. In February 2020, Ammar Ali Jan, a student rights activist, had petitioned the Lahore High Court, questioning the legality of an FIR lodged against him under Section 124(a). Ex-PM Imran Khan is the latest casualty of this arcane law. That is why PPP Senator Raza Rabbani had in June 2020 moved the Pakistan Penal Code (Amendment) Bill — 2020 in the Senate, seeking to abolish the Section 124-A but the PTI law minister opposed it.
Jurists, however, also blamed both the PPP and the PML-N for not abolishing the sedition law during their respective tenures.
The UK, Ireland, Australia, Canada, Ghana, Nigeria and even Uganda, have already banished the “sedition law” as an undemocratic, undesirable and unnecessary law that conflicts with the democratic freedom of speech. When will Pakistan quash this arcane law that is often used for suppression of opposition as a political weapon?
Published in The Express Tribune, September 19th, 2022.
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