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Sedition laws; Let Bygones Be Bygones

“My pen and tablet, all that I had

Taken away from me

But what’s there to grieve for?

For I have dipped my fingers in my heart’s blood

So what if my lips have been sealed shut?

I have now put a tongue in

Each and every link of the chain”


The lines were penned by Faiz Ahmed Faiz in 1951 when he was incarcerated for four years in Hyderabad Jail against the charge of sedition. He was accused of conspiring a communist-backed coup against the government of Pakistan. Although the confinement period elevated his literary carrier, the darker side of the story is that the political polarization under the headings of the “the patriots” and “the traitors” just swept in from the very outset of an infant state. He himself has called this period “second adolescence”. He wrote Dast-e-Saba (Hand of the Wind) and Zindan Nama (Prison Narrative) – one of the most famous collections of prison poetry in the world literature.

Similarly, just outside the grand wood-paneled Central Court of India stands a marble tablet with these lines inscribed in stone: “In spite of the verdict of the Jury, I maintain that I am innocent. There are higher powers that rule the destiny of men and nations and it may be the will of providence that the cause which I represent may prosper more by my suffering than my remaining free.” The lines were spoken in the Central Court by Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak – a nationalist freedom fighter of India. In 1916, Mr. Muhammmad Ali Jinnah defended Tilak when he was charged with sedition, ultimately securing his acquittal.

Mr.Tilak wanted to fight the case with a political spin, but Jinnah insisted that the defense should proceed on legal grounds alone. Mr. M.C Chagla (Mr. Jinnah’s Legal Associate) in his autobiography “Roses in December” recalls, “I might mention here that during my long association with him, I found that Jinnah always showed the greatest respect and regard for Tilak. Two persons in public life for whom Jinnah showed the greatest respect were Gokhale and Tilak.”

The sedition laws of India and Pakistan originate from Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code 1860 (IPC). In August 1870, the law member of the governor general’s executive council, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, draftsman of the Indian Evidence Act, 1870, reintroduced it to read: “Whoever … brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life…” During Khilafat Movement, Mohammad Ali, Maulana Shaukat Ali and Shri Shankaracharya were tried jointly in 1921 at Karachi for sedition. In 1922, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s trial for sedition became famous for his statement in which he hurled defiance at the rulers. The speech, in superb Urdu, is available in book form in Qaul-i-Faisal.

Although the United Kingdom abolished the sedition law through the Coroners and Justice Act, 2009, it continues to be enforced across the Indian subcontinent. The colonial legacy to protect the unobjectionable sanctity of monarchs has been used frequently in both countries to oppress dissent voices of hundreds of journalists, politicians, and political activists by looking down from a higher pedestal of patriotism.

The CAA as ‘rationalization’ of citizenship act tabled in late 2019 by Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) offers fast track citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. During those two months of protests, cases of sedition surpassed the sum of sedition cases filed in 2016, 2017, and 2018, according to data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Actress-turned-politician Ramya is facing a sedition charge filed against her by a lawyer in Karnataka for praising people in Pakistan, kicking up a controversy today with questions being raised over invoking a colonial-era law to curb free speech.

In the United States, The Federalists, who founded this nation and led it until 1800, passed such act in 1798. Modern political theorists, however, have been unable to see how the Sedition Act, with clipping the freedom of speech and political association, can be reconciled with the foundation principles of a republic. Nevertheless, given the tremendous erosion in political participation and emergence of populist regimes that have occurred during the last decade, perhaps, some of these Federalist ideas have become relevant again.

Keeping in view the recent wave of nationalist-populist view dominating world politics, the persistent polarization in Pakistan’s political history has become more stimulated and intensified. The antagonized narratives tarnish the unanimity of cause and action. Academically, however, the modern republicanism advocates the freedom of expression to the extent where it starts damaging the individuality of another citizen. It is not applicable to criticizing an institutional framework which is purposed to serve the larger cause of public well-being using public money.

While reasoning for the abolishment of the sedition laws, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, Claire Ward, was quoted stating: Sedition and seditious and defamatory libel are arcane offences – from a bygone era when freedom of expression wasn’t seen as the right it is today… The existence of these obsolete offences in this country have been used by other countries as justification for the retention of similar laws which have been actively used to suppress political dissent and restrict press freedom. Abolishing these offences will allow the UK to take a lead in challenging similar laws in other countries, where they are used to suppress free speech. So, kindly, let the bygones be bygones and move ahead.

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1 Comment

  1. Fida Hussain October 31, 2020

    Great piece with exact relavance to Pakistan today.


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