“Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”
When Gauri Lankesh woke up on the morning of September 5, 2017, she didn’t know it would be her last day; neither did Shujaat Bukhari, or the other at least 46 Indian journalists who have lost their lives since 1992. Gauri Lankesh was shot dead by unidentified men outside her home, in Bengaluru. An Indian journalist-turned-activist, she was known for her staunch liberal attitude and her criticism of right-wing Hindu extremism. Upon her death, the Press Club of India released a statement saying it believed the journalist’s death was connected to her work.
On 15th August, 2018, we celebrated our 72nd Independence Day. But what is independence without the freedom of speech? And if the right to speak our minds is indeed the essence of freedom, how free are we, really?
Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, also popularly known as The Sedition Law, was introduced in the year 1870 by the Britishers. The law has been notorious for being used against the growing voices of our freedom fighters. Mahatma Gandhi was charged under the same law in the year 1922 and was quoted calling it “the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”.
After independence, the law was retained in the IPC, although further explanations have been added to it. The three explanations aim at clearing out the way for Freedom of speech and expression. However, the terms used are largely loose ended and uncertain in their precise limits. The law therefore, has been on the receiving end of reproval by many activists who see it as a Draconian law aimed at hampering peaceful dissent and speech. In March, 2014, for example, a group of students in Uttar Pradesh were booked for sedition after they cheered for Pakistan in a match that India lost. 67 students were suspended from the university in question. Whether or not the “crime” was grave enough, is a matter of debate.
Freedom of speech
There is no denying that with power also comes the ability to misuse it. The same argument is often given to cite the need for a sedition law in the country. It is said that the law ensures peace, and acts as an instrument against those who wish to cause chaos and hamper the national harmony. However, what often gets forgotten, is again, the definition of patriotism. To critcise is not sedition. Dissent is not sedition.
When ideologies differ, so do opinions. A clash of opinions, a ground for debate is the essence of a healthy and breathing democracy. This is not to say that speeches of communal hate, of preaching discrimination should be sheltered under freedom of speech, no. But laws like the sedition law create a large loophole, leaving peace-abiding citizens vulnerable.
James Baldwin, an American novelist once, while speaking about his country said that-
“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
To speak against injustice and to voice one’s opinion, unpopular as it may be, should not automatically be stamped with “anti-nationalism” or “disrupting peace”. With great power comes great resposibility, yes. But it is in the right and courageous use of this power, that we can call ourselves a democracy.