Throw sedition law out of rule books

Intolerance to dissent has touched unprecedented levels in the country with the authorities slapping sedition and criminal conspiracy charges on Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the students’ union of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. It appears that at an event on campus marking the third anniversary of the hanging of Afzal Guru, who was convicted of masterminding the 2001 attack on Parliament, participants raised slogans calling for Kashmir’s independence from India. Activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad protested this, disrupted the meeting and filed a complaint with the police. The JNU authorities say they had denied permission for the meeting and claim that its organisers had in fact described it as a cultural event. Meanwhile, the BJP leaders went on an overdrive to display their ill-defined patriotism; Minister for Human Resource Development Smriti Irani warned those who “insult Mother India” and Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that the government would “not spare” anyone who “questions the nation’s unity and integrity.” Acting on their cue, the police swooped into the JNU. Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested after being slapped with sedition charges. The police are said to be going on a room-to-room search of JNU’s hostels to nab the other ‘culprits.’

The response of authorities to the event in JNU is excessive, draconian and dangerous. Space to articulate dissenting views is what gives meaning and depth to a democracy. When it is denied, it sets in motion the rotting of our democratic institutions and processes. Airing of diverse views is a must especially in places of learning as it is this that provides the foundation for intellectual advancement. Such debates were a norm in JNU, setting it apart from our other universities. But last week’s chain of events signals that the BJP, and the police and university authorities acting on its behest, have struck a deadly blow at this remarkable tradition by slapping sedition charges on a student leader.

The sedition charges and the crackdown on students are wrong not only because these are anti-democratic but also undeserved. There is no evidence that Kanhaiya Kumar participated in the event. He has said he was, in fact, trying to calm the clashing students. Disciplinary action was unwarranted as the event was peaceful. Importantly, the event was not seditious. India’s sedition laws, which are a colonial relic, are a slur on its democracy. Naming citizens anti-national and charging them under sedition laws has become a handy way for successive governments to deal with dissenters. This must stop. Sedition laws go against the spirit and principles of a democracy. They must be removed from our rule books.

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