Sedition, Lok Pal – and AFSPA? – North by North-east

There have been four strong blows for the aam janata in the past weeks.

One was how Anna Hazare and his team forced the Centre to accept their demands for an omnibus Lokpal Bill to control and review the conduct of those in public life, despite all the messy frame-ups, fake CD/fake recordings and the controversy about the Bhushans persisting with their land deals etc.  The second was when the Supreme Court justly tossed out a ruling by a Sessions Court which convicted the medical doctor and civil rights activist Binayak Sen in Chattisgarh under Section 124A of the Sedition Act for his alleged links with a Maoist ideologue.

The third was the speedy dispatch of a number of corporate honchos accused of corruption and mendaciousness in the 2G scam while the last was the much delayed, at leas tin the public eye, of the arrest of Suresh Kalmadi and more of the Corrupt Games of October 2010. Could we wish for more?  Perhaps we should be a bit more circumspect in our breathless and joyful embrace of what appears to be such good news.

While these have been hailed, no doubt, as victories for the democratic cause, they also underscore the public’s lack of faith in governmental systems to provide justice and affirm its belief that when all else fails, they can turn to the higher courts to challenge the State on issues of fundamental rights, asserting the rights of ordinary people (and the extraordinary) to equality before the law.

This was a point that Veerappa Moily, the Law Minister, was quick to take up – for a change to the norm since Government leaders appear to be more apt to defend and deny than take progressive, pro-public actions — by declaring that the Centre saw a need to review the sedition law and that the Law Commission of India would be asked to take a fresh look at it.

I can only hope that the Law Commission’s report (if it is “asked to take a fresh look” does not meet the fate of the Justice Reddy Committee on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958). The Reddy Committee, set up by New Delhi (at the express intervention of the Prime Minister) following a public outcry after the killing of Ms. Th. Manorama by the Assam Rifles in Manipur in 2004, completed its work in seven months.

As a committee member, I was present when we submitted our unanimous report calling for the Act’s repeal to Home Minister Shivraj Patil in June 2005 in the presence of a number of top officials including the then Home Secretary VK Duggal. Little has happened since then, as I have repeatedly pointed out, because the system is unwilling to take on any real challenge to the armed forces and is determined, despite the wishes of some good men of sensitivity and compassion (yes, there are such people in the Government of India!), to continue to protect its those whose conduct has been, to say the least, illegal while in uniform. Perhaps the Government is too scared to debate, discuss and disseminate our report? If that is how, how will they handle Section 124A which even Pandit Nehru described as “highly objectionable and obnoxious.” In 1951, he told Parliament that “the sooner we got rid of it the better,” referring to the sweeping  provision that punishes those who, by use of words, signs or visible representation, “bring into hatred or contempt” or “excite disaffection” towards the government with a maximum of life imprisonment.

It is doubtful that a New Delhi that has done nothing on a small AFSPSA report in six years can be expected to find the courage or the ability, as some “civil society” figures and prominent media leaders are seeking, to repeal Section 124A, an act that Mahatma Gandhi, in his famous trial of 1924 described as a “prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress liberty of the citizen.”

“I have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court the fact that to preach disaffection towards the existing system of Government has almost become a passion with me,” he declared, while pleading guilty to sedition as charged. “Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law.”

So even as we watch the sparring and noise over Sen’s release, over Hazare’s seeming triumph, and the CBI’s new found zeal, let us be also clear that the State does not respond kindly to demands to dismantle its National Security laws or apparatus.  That is why we must maintain the pressure: demands for abrogating the Sedition law and passing a Lok Pal bill cannot be delinked from AFSPA’s repeal.

North by North-east / Sedition, Lok Pal – and AFSPA? / By Sanjoy Hazarika


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