Dangerous Colonial Hangover: Time To Repeal Sedition Law

Dangerous Colonial Hangover: Time To Repeal Sedition Law
The registration of sedition case against the leadership of Pakistan Muslim League - N (PML-N) including two former prime ministers is still shrouded in mystery. While the government has distanced itself from the FIR, it remains unclear as to how a 'private citizen' with a criminal record was able to have the case registered given that a sedition case can only be registered by the government.

Punjab police Saturday announced that it has dropped all charges against the PML-N leaders named in the said FIR. However, Nawaz Sharif's name remains part of the FIR and the former PM will have to face the sedition charges.

The complainant's association with PTI and his pictures with senior leaders of the party added fuel to the speculations. Among those named in the case were Azad Jammu Kashmir’s incumbent PM Raja Farooq Haider and three retired generals.

AJK PM's name was reportedly struck off from the FIR on government's orders following social media uproar. Observers opined that the PM of AJK being booked on sedition charges was bad optics for a government often accused by the opposition of betraying the people of Indian-occupied Kashmir.

Meanwhile, even as the government claimed it had no knowledge of the case and official spokespersons deny involvement, Prime Minister's Special Assistant for Political Affairs Shehbaz Gill chose to justify the charges of sedition levelled against members of the opposition. In a tweet, he said that the government did not believe in charging opponents with treason, but the FIR against the PMLN leadership included the provisions of sedition, which he proceeded to justify.


Explaining the definition of sedition, the SAPM said that inciting people against the 'institutions' falls under the ambit of sedition. Meaning that the government disowns the FIR but does not condemn the liberal (mis)use of sedition law.

The development has generated a debate in Pakistan about the nature of the colonial-era sedition law and its use as a silencing tool. But this is not the first time voices critical of the government have been slapped with sedition charges. It is only after mainstream politicians faced these charges that the law's misuse came under discussion on mainstream media. Recently, activists and journalists also fell victim to similar FIRs lodged by individuals under the sedition law, but these cases went largely unnoticed.

Three journalists critical of the government and establishment were booked for treason and sedition last month. Journalist Absar Alam was implicated in a case of sedition while Asad Ali Toor and Bilal Farooqi had separate cases registered against them under PECA for using 'derogatory language against state institutions'. Bilal Farooqi faced brief detention following registration of the FIR. All three complaints were lodged separately. Journalists and rights bodies had condemned the cases, terming them an attack on freedom of press in the country.

Earlier in January this year, 23 civil society activists mostly belonging to the left-leaning Awami Workers Party (AWP) were arrested and later booked on sedition charges for attending a protest against the arrest of Pashtun Tahaffuz Movemenet (PTM) chief Manzoor Pashteen in Islamabad.

A week later, the sedition charges were dropped on orders of Islamabad High Court (IHC) whose Chief Justice Athar Minallah, while reprimanding the authorities for invoking the colonial-era law, ordered their release. "This is Pakistan, not India," the IHC chief justice had remarked while taking a jibe at India over its act of registering sedition cases against activists in the country for protesting the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

In November 2019, hundreds of people were charged with sedition over their participation in the Students Solidarity March held across the country. Activist Iqbal Lala, father of the slain student leader Mashal Khan, was also named in the sedition FIR. Others accused of sedition were Pashtun student Alamgir Wazir, activists Ammar Ali Jan and Farooq Tariq. Alamgir Wazir was arrested and remained incarcerated for four months.

Talking to Naya Daur about the sedition case against him, journalist Absar Alam said that the police had promised to withdraw the case after Senate's Human Rights Committee summoned the DPO and told him it was illegal to register a sedition case without involving the government. "But they have not dropped the charges yet. I have not even been given a copy of the FIR despite repeated requests," he said.

The journalist further said that the man who lodged the complaint against him on sedition charges is an office-bearer of the ruling PTI, member of the party’s lawyers wing Insaf Lawyers Forum and is considered close to Federal Minister Fawad Chaudhry.

Alam however said that he refused to seek protective bail and will not try to evade arrest. "They are free to arrest me if they can," he said, vowing not to be silenced.

Journalists protection body

Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) recently announced free legal service for journalist and political activists facing sedition charges. A group of lawyers giving voluntary services has been formed for the purpose, PBC Chairman Abid Saqi told Naya Daur.

He said that the space of freedom of expression has shrunk in Pakistan and it was the duty of lawyers to stand up for rule of law and resist harassment of activists and journalists being carried out through draconian laws.

Colonial legacy of sedition law

Much has been said on the colonial legacy of the sedition law, but successive governments did not attempt to amend or abolish the act. In June, Pakistan People's Party (PPP) Senator Raza Rabbani submitted a private members' bill in the Senate seeking amendments to the sedition law on the grounds that it is part of the 'inherited colonial structure'. While little progress has been made on that front, a debate about the need to reform the sedition law has erupted following the recent FIRs against politicians.

Section 124-A (sedition) was added to the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 1870 by an amendment introduced by Sir James Stephen. It was one of the many draconian laws enacted by the British regime to crush voices of dissent at the time. The law was liberally used against nationalists and freedom fighters.

The most famous sedition trial during the freedom movement is that of Mahatma Gandhi who was sentenced to 6 years of imprisonment. During one of his court appearances, Gandhi referred to the law as "prince among the political sections introduced to suppress the liberty of the citizens". The colonial government also booked editors of nationalist newspapers.

Vagueness of definition

Pakistan's Penal Code defines sedition as an act that "brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Federal or Provincial Government established by law".

Many experts say that these elements of offence do not belong in the present era. Interestingly, the sedition law was abolished in UK under PM Gordon Brown's Labour government in 2010, but India and Pakistan continue to cling on to this colonial legacy.

Legal expert Reema Omer told Naya Daur that elements of the offence in the sedition law are vague, over-broad and open to subjective interpretations, as is evident from a plain reading of sedition. "The law gives virtually no instruction to the people or to law-enforcement officials and the judiciary regarding what behaviour is prohibited," she said.

She added that this vagueness also flouts the principle of legality, a precondition to the right of fair trial recognised globally as well as by courts in Pakistan. In response to a question, Reema said that the implementation of section 124A, a bad law to begin with, has further made it a tool of oppression.

Who is responsible to stop misuse of sedition law?

The requirements under the law are often not fulfilled by police in sedition cases, as was witnessed in the recent FIR against former PMs. Reema says that the responsibility of misuse lies on all responsible actors: police, prosecutors, the government, as well as courts.

"Police register FIRs for sedition even without prior government sanction, which is a requirement under the law for crimes like sedition," she said, adding that prosecutors continue with legal proceedings even when it’s clear the offence of sedition isn’t made out.

'Courts reluctant to follow precedent'

When asked if government's act of disowning the sedition FIRs was enough, she said that even if the government distances itself from the FIRs, it still doesn’t exercise its powers to direct withdrawal of cases. Reema further opined that the courts are reluctant to follow precedent and quash FIRs even where clearly enumerated principles regarding the institution of sedition cases aren’t followed.

"Let’s add Parliament to this, which has failed to abolish sedition as a crime," Reema told Naya Daur.

Is 'fifth generation hybrid war' a justification for sedition FIRs?

Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Qamar Javed Bajwa on Saturday reiterated that Pakistan faces a hybrid war which is meant to target the 'sense of hope' in the country. National security and 'hybrid war' narrative is often invoked by the powers-that-be to justify clampdown on dissent.

Reema says the misuse of sedition law is not legally defensible on the grounds of rising dissent. She mentioned Justice Athar Minallah's recent order pertaining to a bail in a sedition case in which he responded to this [hybrid war argument]. “Dissent or criticism is an integral part of democracy – the state or its institutions aren’t so weak to fear dissent or criticism.” the IHC chief justice had said.
Managing Editor

The author is Managing Editor, Naya Daur Media. She covers counter-extremism, human rights and freedom of speech among other issues. She tweets at @AiliaZehra and can be reached at ailiazehra2012@gmail.com