Head-on | Scrap sedition law: Why Section 124A must go

My experience with Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) — the colonial-era law of sedition — leaves me in no doubt that it should not...

My experience with Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) — the colonial-era law of sedition — leaves me in no doubt that it should not survive on India’s statute books for a day longer.

Rewind to the mid-1980s. The Pakistan-backed Khalistani separatist movement was in full swing in Punjab. Terrorism was rampant. Indira Gandhi had been assassinated. Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister.

I asked my National Affairs Editor Harish Mehta (younger brother of the late Outlook editor Vinod Mehta) to go to Punjab and interview Khalistani terrorists and their victims. Harish spent 14 days travelling across some of Punjab’s most terror-infested trouble spots and filed his story.

It was a detailed investigative report and included an interview with the Khalistani terrorist Rajinder Kaur, daughter of Master Tara Singh, a veteran Khalistani terrorist group leader.

I was in Delhi at work at the time. Harish filed his report. It went straight to the desk of our Executive Editor in Mumbai, David Davidar (currently head of Aleph Books). It was a 14-page cover story and I told David to edit it carefully and send it to press.

***

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***

I flew back to Mumbai a few days later. The issue had just hit the stands. Harish’s story, which I hadn’t yet read, seemed to have come off well. Our art director had placed his scoop interview with Rajinder Kaur in a tinted grey box to highlight it.

Letters from readers poured in. The issue was sold out in days.

We were unprepared for what happened next. A summons arrived from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in Delhi. It said, in short, that our cover story on Punjab violated Section 124A of the IPC. A formal FIR would follow from the local police.

When the Mumbai police arrived at our Nariman Point office, they pointed out what precisely in the cover story had violated Section 124A. While interviewing the Khalistani terrorist Rajinder Kaur, Harish had quoted her saying that there was incendiary talk in Punjab about the prime minister. Her exact words were inflammatory and cannot be printed here. They should not have been printed in our cover story either.

We were mortified. National Affairs Editor Harish Mehta should not have used those words in the story even though he had them on tape. Executive Editor David Davidar and the rest of the editorial staff should have edited those words out. I should have checked the cover story before it went to press even if it meant delaying the issue till I returned to Mumbai from Delhi.

The upshot was that an FIR was filed against us for sedition. Section 124A was invoked. The police team at our office asked me in whose name the FIR should be filed. Technically it should have been in David’s or Harish’s name. The latter wrote the story. The former edited it in my absence.

But as the editor-in-chief and chairman of the media company, the buck stopped at my table. I asked the police to put my name in the FIR, leaving out the others.

The 124A case dragged on for years. We got a stay on it from the Delhi High Court. Our legal team included Salman Khurshid, Lalit Bhasin (then chief of the AICC legal cell) and the Luthras. I had to make numerous trips to Delhi for hearings.

The case finally was sent by the Delhi High Court back to the magistrate’s court. There I often stood in Delhi’s suffocating summers in small packed courtrooms with hardened accused criminals. Hearings were constantly adjourned. Finally, in 2012, we got an enlightened judge. He castigated the MHA’s prosecution lawyer and acquitted me. It was over in ten minutes. The case though had taken over 25 years to wind itself through our clogged legal system.

So, yes, Section 124A should go. It is misused to harass journalists and activists. Terrorists who should be tried under Section 124A get away. In our case, we were tried for sedition for quoting Khalistani terrorist Rajinder Kaur. She wasn’t prosecuted. She was killed months later by the Punjab Police under its “bullet for bullet” policy.

Will terrorists get a free ride if Section 124A is revoked? Not, if it is reworked, with a new law narrowing down the definition of sedition. Section 124A today is too broad and ambiguous. It is susceptible to misuse by investigative agencies. This is what it says: “Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added…”

Other laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) have enough teeth to bring terrorists and seditionists to book. India has many enemies who want to wage proxy war on India. The recent terror attack on a bus in Katra using a crude improvised explosive device (IED) shows how important it is to have robust laws to deal with security threats.

But using colonial-era laws to suppress dissent while letting terrorists off the hook only emboldens India’s enemies. That is why 124A in its current form must go.

The writer is editor, author and publisher. Views expressed here are personal.

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India World News: Head-on | Scrap sedition law: Why Section 124A must go
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