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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 23, New Delhi, May 23, 2020

Criticism Cannot Be Sedition

Saturday 23 May 2020, by T J S George


Two things worry me. Deeply. Feeling patriotic, I sat glued to the television set for the Prime Minister’s "address to the nation." After two minutes I felt hungry and moved to the dining table. Like me the majority of people in the south must have lost interest in the Hindi prabhashan. I don’t feel good about my lack of interest in Hindi. But I don’t feel guilty either.

The second thing that sent me off to the dining table was the nothing-new feeling created by the prime ministerial message. Economic package. Rebuilding. Demand-Supply chakra. Self-reliance. Rs. 20 lakh crore for self-reliant India. Of course, if even a few of the promises are fulfilled, it will be progress. But the fact remains that we have lived for 70 years on slogans, the last six of them on well-phrased slogans well delivered. They didn’t click because urgent issues, like massive movement of migrant labour, were ignored.

But one thing is new, and disturbing. Sedition law is being used to suppress the common democratic right of criticism. Patel, a local journalist in Gujarat, was booked for sedition when he uploaded a report about Chief Minister Vijay Rupani. It was a routine report saying that there were problems between the chief minister and the BJP High Command, the kind of report that appears about many state leaderships in many forums. If the report was incorrect, both the Chief Minister and the BJP High Command could have publicly said so and the media would have been obliged to publish the denial.

But that is not what the Rupani Government did. It ensured that the Ahmedabad Police crime branch filed an FIR against Patel under the sedition act. The police chief perhaps saw the farcical nature of the action and said: "As a precautionary measure in view of the corona virus pandemic, Patel has been detained, not arrested, and sent to SVP Hospital for Covid treatment." Thus the police turned the sedition story into a corona story.

Sedition means inciting people to rebel against the state. In Indian democratic system, governments have always been criticised by political opponents and by media. This was never interpreted as rebellion against the state. Therefore, using the sedition act to prevent legitimate give-and-take in a democracy is a cheap trick. It won’t work. BJP and Congress, CPM and Trinamool, all must face democracy’s challenges; none can get refuge behind sedition laws.

Strangely, many of our elected leaders seem to belive that, once elected, they are above the checks and balances of democracy. Such leaders resort to sedition laws at the slightest provocation. Parliamentary criticism of a government or a minister is the essence of democracy. To say that such criticism is sedition amounting to rebellion against the state is nonsense.

That the Rupani Government in Gujarat resorted to nonsensical procedures to silence critics is ironical. Gujarat has the worst morbidity rate in the country. The first covid cases were confirmed in Gujarat. It remains the worst affected state after Maharashtra. Gujarat became known for announcing precipitate policies without giving people sufficient notice. People were banned from leaving their homes; shops were closed for a week.

Ahmedabad is notorious for localities crammed with people Dharavi-style. In fact it is worse because, unlike in Dharavi, religion plays a role in separating one over-crammed sector from another. Large numbers of men and women sharing one bathroom is scary enough. Imagine the complications if the scarce bathrooms are segregated religionwise as well. Many years of rule by BJP stalwarts have not succeeded in improving the situation in Gujarat and in its capital in particular.

British bureaucratic legalese is the hallmark of the sedition law that India still follows. It says that "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, shall be punished..." A century and a half have passed since the original enactment. But the language — and the mentality — remain unchanged.

The Prime Minister deflects all criticism by giving his oratory full play. Abraham Lincoln was no orator. He delivered the Gettysburg Address in a most unimpressive style. But it changed the course of history. Infosys founder Narayana Murthy recently made a relevant comment. "India cannot continue in this situation for long. At some point deaths due to hunger will outweigh deaths due to corona. We must facilitate return to work by the able-bodied while protecting the vulnerable."

Wisdom, not oratory.

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