Under the We The People (WTP) programme of Barkha Dutt of NDTV, there was an interesting debate on laws relating to sedition and their widespread misuse on the night of August 5,2012.
2. Some instances of misuse of these powers cited during the debate as, for example, against those who agitated on the issue of the safety of the Koodankulam Nuclear Power plant in Tamil Nadu, were shocking and do not speak well of the Indian State.
3. However, the fact that there continues to be many instances of such gross misuse does not necessarily prove that the existence of these laws is unnecessary and unwise. The questions to be debated were why such instances of misuse occurred and how to prevent them and how to deter the State from misusing the laws. Such a debate might have brought out imperfections in the laws as now formulated which give scope for such misuse and come out with ideas as to how to address them.
4.Often, such misuses occur not because of imperfections in the laws, but because of politicised application of the laws by the police under political pressure. The Koodankulam instance discussed in the programme is a typical example of politicised application.
5. During the debate, Barkha kept repeatedly pointing out that the Government which applied the sedition laws against separatists such as the Mizo National Front and the Huriyat in Jammu & Kashmir did not hesitate to negotiate with them. The fact that the Government negotiated with them is not an argument to show that the laws were not necessary.
6. When a group of people takes to armed defiance of the State to achieve an objective, the first obligation of the Government acting in the name of the State is to show that armed defiance will not pay. Once that message is conveyed, the Government and the group resorting to armed defiance become amenable to negotiations. That is what happened in the cases cited by Barkha.
7. Governments deal with armed defiance of the State through a judicious mix of the might of the law and the might of the gun in order to make it clear that armed defiance will not pay. If the Government does not have at its disposal the back-up support of the might of the law, it may be forced to rely totally on the might of the gun against its own citizens, which will be counter-productive.
8. The laws relating to sedition provide that backup support. These laws should be used only against overt acts of defiance or overt incitement to acts of defiance. A question for which there has been no satisfactory answer so far is whether rationalisation of acts of armed defiance by someone not indulging in such acts and expressions of moral support for such acts should be deemed to be sedition. I personally feel they should not be and no action should be taken against people who indulge in such rationalisation and expression of moral support. The case of Arundhati Roy will come under this category.
9.At the same time, we must apply the law firmly against those who indulge in armed defiance at the instance or with the support of another State.
10. There is no doubt that the laws relating to sedition need to be revisited to make them less susceptible for misuse. We can reduce instances of misuse, but cannot totally eliminate them. That is where the judiciary comes in to deal with instances of misuse despite all the safeguards against misuse provided in the laws. ( 5-8-12)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org . Twitter: @SORBONNE75 )