Do not criticize the government, it is seditious in a democracy

Suddenly the Indian state is under threat from a section of people, the so called cartoonists. Earlier they used to tickle our funny bones with loads of wit and humour. Now their cartoons are inciting people to rebel against the state. If that is not the case, how does the officials explain the arrest of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi accusing him of sedition? The same old sedition laws of 1870, by which Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak were arrested for waging war against the British. Aseem Trivedi was arrested because he drew some offensive cartoons. Six decades after independence we are still suffering from colonial hangover of the British rule in India.

The section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code implies sedition as an offense that excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government. Now, what is disaffection? Disaffection means, you are not satisfied with the people in power and you are no longer willing to support them. With a population of one billion it is impossible for any government to satisfy the masses and there will be a voice of dissent at any given time from some quarters. The law makes sense only if there is violence. It is undemocratic to nab someone in the pretext of sedition just for criticizing the government.

Many people over the years have been arrested on bogus charges of sedition. The most controversial sedition case in recent times is that of Dr Binayak Sen. He was accused of being a courier for the Maoist and sentenced to life imprisonment by the court. His suffering stemmed from the fact that he was a vocal critique of the state government and the outfit Salwa Judum. Arundhadhi Roy’s secessionist views on Kashmir was enough to get her slapped with charges of sedition. In Uttar Pradesh, journalist Seema Azad and her husband Vishwa Vijay were charged with sedition on the basis of some innocuous documents found in their possession. When Gandhiji was arrested for sedition, he was given a six year prison sentence. Awarding life imprisonments to Dr Binayak Sen and Seema Azad perhaps we are going a step further than the British to punish our own people.

Laws are made to make life easier. But the sedition law exists only to incarcerate people for raising their voice. The administration wants to avoid criticism because they are scared of mass movements that target them. They can’t afford another Anna Hazare like episode to be played out on the streets. In Koodankulam, thousands of protestors were charged with sedition in order to suppress their voice so that the authorities can go ahead with the nuclear plant.

Every law in this country is misused. Then what is so unique about sedition? In the case of sedition, the law itself is undemocratic. Democracy gives space for criticism. This law has a place only in authoritarian rule where freedom of speech and expression is curbed.

Jawaharlal Nehru was in favour of scrapping this highly objectionable and obnoxious law in 1951. But he refrained from taking any concrete action. 60 years have passed since then. Over the years not a single government took any initiative to get the law repealed. Even today the majority opinion is to abolish and do away with this undemocratic law. With the wheels of legislative reforms moving at a snail’s pace if the process starts now then we can achieve the target in time for our next generation to live easy.

Angrez chale gaye, lekin angrezi kanoon chod gaye (The English left, but left the English laws behind).  When we boast of our technological advancements and economic growth taking our country forward, these archaic laws are pulling us back. Today the pen is mightier than the sword to put you behind bars.

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The innocence of free speech

The world has gone crazy in the last couple of weeks. What could be the reason for such sudden turbulence? Is it due to any conflict between two super powers of the world? Did some popular leader get assassinated? Or is it a revolution against an autocratic military rule? No, it isn’t. The reason is the 14-minute amateur video in YouTube of an anti-Islam film named “Innocence of Muslims” made by a Coptic Christian in America. It has turned the world upside down.

There are two kinds of people in the picture. Those who are in support of the film wants to uphold the principles of freedom of speech, which is an integral part of a democracy. Those who are protesting against it, they are deeply offended by the depiction of Prophet Muhammad in the film. Whichever side you wish to join in, this film has caused violence and unrest in many countries for real.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran said, “In return for (allowing) the ugliest insults to the divine messenger, they-the West- raise the slogan of respect of freedom of speech.” Freedom of speech is the most cherished and precious rights of a man. We can opine, criticize, and talk freely on any subject without any fear or punitive action. But freedom of speech does not give the license to spread hatred, bigotry and Islamophobia. It is a very fine line between criticism and insult. For a mere criticism the right of free speech cannot be denied to anyone. But insult in the pretext of freedom of speech is unethical.

“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic”, the most famous opinion on free speech written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. To get offended by something is subjective. For so many people around the world to take to the streets and run riot, you sure have crossed the line.

When a mere depiction of Prophet Muhammad has a history of violence, the issue is highly sensitive. It is a spark waiting to ignite a ravaging fire. By equating “man plus X equals Islamic Terrorist”, calling Muhammad – the bastard, and ridiculing him as a womanizer, child molester and homosexual, it is highly unlikely that there won’t be any reactions. No one has the right to insult Islam even if they do not follow the prophet. So the only point in making this film is to disrupt the peace and harmony.

But violence in the streets is not the answer for discontent. The right of peaceful protest is a vital part of democracy. No religion in the world encourages violence. All those rebels who are protesting and killing people in the name of God, are insulting the Prophet themselves. The way they are reacting they are giving an impression that Islam is a religion of intolerance and war when actually it is not.

When Pakistan observed ‘Love the Prophet Day’ what actually unfolded was violence in the name of the Prophet. At least 23 innocent lives and livelihood were lost as the protesters went on a rampage. Some reports suggest that Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, a Pakistan cabinet member offered a $100,000 reward for the death of the filmmaker. Is death the solution to all the world’s problems? The Muslim extremists are creating instability in their own regions by rioting in their backyard. They themselves are the real losers in this whole episode.

Every American is now looked upon with suspicion. Some lunatic American made a film about the Prophet and the US Embassies came under attack. But should Americans complain? After 9/11 every Muslim was being looked upon with suspicion by the Americans. The tables have turned now. Just as every Muslim is not a terrorist every American is not anti Islam. But in the midst of all the ruckus people are dying. Just spare a thought for them.