By Mahtab Alam
The arrest of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi under section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), amounting sedition, has triggered a new debate. He has been arrested on charges of mocking the Constitution, the Parliament and the National flag through his cartoons. The arrest drew a sharp condemnation from several quarters and rightly so. The former judge of the Supreme Court and Chairperson of Press Council of India, Justice Markandey Katju, was quick to term the arrest wrongful stating that the cartoonist had done nothing illegal and arresting a cartoonist or any other person who had not committed a crime, was itself a crime under the IPC. Meanwhile, human rights and civil liberties groups like the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) while agreeing with Justice Katju condemned the arrest. The PUCL in its statement said: “It is an attack on the freedom of speech and expression granted under the Constitution of India. Merely expressing one’s views against the corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and corporate through any medium of one’s choice does not in any way constitute sedition”. Several political parties, including Left parties also condemned the arrest and demanded his immediate release.
Interestingly, the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), a known user of the sedition law (remember Binayak Sen and others) and self-proclaimeddeshbhakt party took a lead in condemning the arrest. The party spokesperson while lambasting the UPA government said: “You are in power that does not mean you impose an undeclared emergency in the country.” He asked, “How a cartoonist exercising his right to freedom of speech by expressing his views could become a threat to national security?” However, there are also people who welcomed the arrest. According to an opinion poll conducted on FirstPost.com 62 percent voters believed that ‘the police was right in arresting cartoonist Aseem Trivedi’. On Tuesday a division bench of Chief Justice (of the Mumbai High Court) Mohit Shah and Justice Nitin Jamdar while hearing a PIL directed the police to release Trivedi on execution of a personal bail-bond of 5,000 rupees, which Trivedi refused saying that he was not taking the bail since the sedition charges against him had not yet been dropped. Later on Tuesday, on the assurance of the State Home Minister, R R Patil that the sedition charges will be withdrawn, Trivedi agreed to avail the bail. So, he will be a ‘freeman’ soon.
But the larger question is what about the sedition law and will others booked under the same charges be entertained and bailed like Trivedi? The fact is, Trivedi may be the most recent victim of the sedition law but certainly he is not the first and the last. There are hundreds of activists, journalists, artists, academicians, poets and ordinary citizens languishing in jails or hiding just because they are charged with sedition. In Maharshtra alone, there are many cases of such kind. Take the case of Sudhir Dhawale, a Dalit activist, actor and publisher-editor of the bi-monthly Marathi Magazine, Vidrohi. Despite continuous condemnation and demand of his immediate release, he is languishing in jail since January 2011. In his case, even the minimum legal requirements for arrest and seizure were not followed. Similar is the case of activist-journalist Seema Azad and activist Vishwvijay. They were released on bail last month, ordered by the Allahabad High court, after two and half years. One can cite a long list of such cases, right from JC Bose, Mahatma Gandhi, Balgangadhar Tilak to Binayak Sen, Prashant Rahi, Lenin Kumar, Piyush Sethia, Noor Mohammed, to name a few.
However, the most interesting and ridiculous case of sedition were those charged for protesting against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu. As many as 8,000 cases, yes , 8,000 cases of sedition and waging a war against the nation have been registered, at a single police station of Idinthakarai, a small coastal village in Tirunelveli district of the state. Almost entire of the village has been branded as seditious. Their crime? According to reports, most of the cases were lodged on three occasions. First, during a sit-in at the plant premises in October 2011, the Koodankulam police, after using violent means to ward off the protesters, lodged as many as 3,000 cases. Second, in November 2011, more cases were filed when fishermen from the neighbouring villages staged a peaceful demonstration. And the last mass registration of sedition cases was done last month when on the occasion of Independence Day this year, villagers as a sign of protest, refused to hoist the national flag and put up black flags instead. They also burnt the coffin of democracy.
Hence, what we must bear in mind is that it is not a matter of Aseem Trivedi alone; there are hundreds of victims of this colonial, aristocratic, anti-democratic and arbitrary law, if it is called a law at all. And the history of (mis)use of this draconian and undemocratic law is as old as the law itself. The time has come to demand and campaign against this draconian provision of IPC. This law, as Jawahar Lal Nehru rightly pointed out during a parliamentary debate on freedom of speech in 1951. “…as I am concerned that particular Section is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place…in any body of laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better.” This must be scraped at once, at least to show that we are a democratic country and there is no need to burn its coffin.
Mahtab Alam is a delhi based Civil Rights Activist and Journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org