Why Cong must lead the charge on abolishing sedition law


Dear Rahul

Your recent statement that “democracy is dead” created the expected hullabaloo. Not surprisingly, the BJP ridiculed your justifiable solicitude at India’s slipping global image of becoming an illiberal democracy. They trashed the US-based Freedom House report that said we were partly-free, and the Swedish V-Democratic Institute findings which said India was like an elected autocracy. The government’s response was boilerplate: This was mere left-leaning vacuous intellectualism, jaundiced at its core. Fact is that the new global political model uses electoral triumphs to undermine civil liberties. Presidents Erdogan, Putin, Viktor Orban, Roger Duterte, Jair Bolsonaro have gradually converted democratic systems into an autocratic architecture. Modern-day societies do not need earth-shattering legislations to announce their new freedom strangulating avatar; democracy dies in slow equal monthly instalments. That is what is happening in India today. That is what must stop. That is why the Congress needs to walk the talk. That’s why this open letter to you.

I was extremely disappointed that the Congress did not forcefully support one of its liberal lynchpins Dr Shashi Tharoor when he (along with several esteemed journalists) was accused of sedition. For someone who I believe has genuine concerns about India’s current ramshackle democracy, you did not even tweet on it. The accusation was heavy-handed, and borne out of palpable malice against those who were supporters of the agitating farmers. The sedition charge was made under Section 124A of the IPC which the Congress had promised to abolish if it came to government in its 2019 election manifesto. It is this inexplicable, unfathomable silence of the Congress that makes the party appear ideologically fly-by-night. Both the commentariat and the public at large think the Congress merely provides superficial lip-service to freedom of speech but starts to tergiversate at crunch time. If you wish to change this dismal perception, the Congress must demand both a public debate and parliamentary deliberations on sedition. Parliament can either frame a new law, or amend the existing one shorn of its wide-ranging nebulousness that is subjected to deliberate wilful misinterpretation. It is the latter that makes every citizen of India susceptible to state bullying. No political party likes dissent, including the Congress. But we must remember what Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru once said: “The sooner we get rid of Sec 124 the better”. The Congress must bell the cat. It was distressing for me personally to see the party suddenly backtrack on its own manifesto proclamation on Sec 124 just because BJP pounced on its “anti-national” shibboleth. The Congress meekly succumbed to BJP’s tukde tukde gang jingoistic rodomontade.

The irony is that while Britain has since abolished the antediluvian law, India remains obsessed with this colonial hangover. The sedition law thwarted India’s freedom fighters; Mahatma Gandhi and Lokmanya Tilak were convicted under the draconian law, which is a cognisable offense. The convictions under the law are low, but the real purpose is to create the “chilling effect”, the fear of a midnight knock at the door. Ask Disha Ravi, Munawar Faruqui, Anurag Kashyap, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Siddique Kappan, Dr Kafeel Khan, the Bhima-Koregaon activists. It is true that even the Congress has flagrantly abused these statutes in the past based on its political expediency. Which is why I congratulate you for criticising the Emergency aberration. However, even after 44 years the Congress easily gets shanghaied by BJP’s Emergency attack, appearing like a lame duck to its whataboutery. The party needs to tell the people that 22 months of official subversion of fundamental rights was wrong, but was ethically superior to 82 months (and continuing) unofficial Emergency that is imperceptible, stealthy, and has led to creeping debilitation of India’s institutions. Sec 124 is used to essentially frighten potential dissenters. A new database by Article 14 showed that as many as 96% of sedition cases filed against 405 Indians were for criticising politicians and government after 2014, and most of them were in BJP-ruled states. Those at the receiving end include renowned journalists, civil society activists, public intellectuals, authors, students etc. The Congress needs to rediscover Mahatma Gandhi’s ability for mass mobilisation and unyielding peaceful protests. Saving a democracy is never easy.

India faces a democratic deconsolidation. You must undo what the Congress itself failed to do earlier. But it is never too late. It is time for the Grand Old Party to bat on the front-foot. And as Virat Kohli recently demonstrated in a T20 match against England, it might help to open the batting. At stake is the future of the world’s largest democracy on the brink.

I wish you luck.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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