Samjho ki sedition law gaya! No matter what squeaky noises are made by India’s law minister, the articulate and cute Kiren Rijuju, about some vaguely defined “lakshman rekha”, as of now, the citizens of India have won a major victory, thanks to the learned and wise Supreme Court judges who have installed an unambiguous protective apparatus, pending the Centre’s review. When we can’t find a better villain, we blame the British. Like now. A good 152 years later. Thomas Babington Macaulay, as chairman, had drafted the Indian Penal Code on the recommendations of the first Law Commission of India (1834). It came into force in British India in 1862. But Sections 121A and 124A, dealing with sedition, were introduced in 1870. The British Raj used the section to silence activists demanding independence. Political stalwarts like Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi were found guilty and jailed. So was Jawaharlal Nehru, who was released after 97 days, though the sentence was for two years.
Sedition was made a cognisable offence during Indira Gandhi’s tenure in 1973 — arrest without a warrant became the rule even though in 1962 India’s Supreme Court had interpreted the section to apply only if there was “incitement to violence” or “overthrowing a democratically elected government through violent means”. The Hindi translation of sedition? “Raj-Droh” or “Vidroh”. I guess I can count myself in, and in future call myself a “Vidrohi”, given the background to my personal experience with the draconian 124A, way back in 1980s. The year 1984 was when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, in the wake of Operation Bluestar, during which “Khalistan” activist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was killed. We know the rest. Where do I come into it? I happened to have interviewed Simranjit Singh Mann, the former IPS officer who as an SP in Punjab later admitted he had helped Bhindranwale and his men with arms and ammunition. Mann was named in the assassination of Indira Gandhi, but the investigators could not prove the charge. Mann had meanwhile gone underground a day after granting me the sole interview to an English publication. I had conducted the interview late in the evening at the arty café called Samovar, which used to be housed in the corridor of the iconic Jehangir Art Gallery at the time. The next morning, Mann was on the run. And I was stuck with the dreaded sedition and treason charge as one of the accused in the case against him. The case galloped along at a pretty brisk pace. Often, Mann’s wife would be present in court, and we’d wish one another politely, surrounded as we were with hardcore criminals, some facing multiple murder charges. My lawyers advised me to sit as far away from her as possible, since they feared an attack on her inside the courtroom. “You should not be caught in the crossfire,” they said sweetly, staring pointedly at my belly (I was visibly pregnant). Oh well… the date for the trial was finally fixed. The venue? Bhagalpur! Lovely. That’s all I needed. Fortuitously, as things turned out, the government at the Centre abruptly fell, and Chandra Shekhar took over (1990) from V.P. Singh as Prime Minister. All the charges against Mann were promptly dropped. Or else, my daughter Anandita would have been born inside Bhagalpur jail.
Kapil Sibal has pointed out that there are 13,000 people in jail, charged under Section 124A, with over 800 cases of sedition filed across India. “Scrap the law!” he thundered. And everyone cheered. Experts called it “a step in the right direction”, while Rahul Gandhi pitched in with his Twitter activism to say: “Telling the truth is patriotism, not treason. Listening to the truth is one’s duty. Crushing the truth is arrogance. Don’t be afraid.” He is really such a chweetie-pie, this Rahul Baba. Speaks like an overgrown bachcha. Not sure which gorgeous wedding destination he was tweeting from. But I laughed while reading his tweet. It was the Congress government which had harassed me with that flimsy sedition charge back then. Not sure how much has changed in 2022. His party is as good as over — no, no, no, not the one in Kathmandu. The political party he is the leader of, but frequently forgets to lead.
For now, the Supreme Court order passed by a bench headed by CJI N.V. Ramanna is being called “historic” — nobody can be prosecuted under Section 124A IPC. A former Supreme Court judge, Deepak Gupta, was very forthright while airing his views: “There may be people who keep a dissenting view or criticise the actions of the government or State. They should have the freedom to speak and not be visited with penal action under sedition.” Take a look at the people in recent history who have been booked under the sedition law: Siddique Kappan, Umar Khalid, Aisha Sultana. Sudha Bhardwaj, Disha Ravi, Hardik Patel, Varavara Rao. Stan Swamy died in July 2021 after being arrested in the Elgar Parishad case. Then there are the farmer leaders from the tractor rally in 2021, besides several student leaders accused of chanting provocative slogans. Shut up and put up. Has such a despotic strategy to dabao and kill dissent ever worked?
Meanwhile, there’s a “love song which sounds like a threat” doing the rounds. It’s a super-hit track that has generated over 100 million views on YouTube. “Pasoori”, sung by a 37-year-old Pakistani musician named Ali Sethi, is being talked about as a delightfully subversive performer, since the song is more a metaphor for India and Pakistan tensions than a love song. New York-based Sethi, the son of noted Pakistani journalists and publishers Najam Sethi and his wife Jugnu Mohsin, says he grew up in a home “full of jail-going writers and activists”. His interview that was published in the New York Times has India-Pakistan watchers in a total tizz. “Pasoori”, a Punjabi word, loosely translates as “difficult mess”.
Well, guess what? Let’s have a “Passori” pawwrie to celebrate the recent sedition order. Come on — it’s a big moment for all of us. Here’s hoping for a more relaxed environment in matters political and cultural — precious freedoms (freedom of speech and freedom of expression) have just been restored and we must reclaim and rejoice our fundamental rights, before someone attempts to snatch them away again. “Lakshman rekhas” are arbitrary and subjective. A free nation demands free minds. “Pasoori” is being billed as a pop song that attempts to unite India and Pakistan. Let Sufi qawallis blend with classical ragas and seamlessly create a new melody.