The propensity of elected governments to trample individual freedoms has been normalised to an absurd extent. In the current climate of high-pitched nationalism, glaring violations of basic rights are being dismissed as routine. Yet another case in point is the arrest and prolonged detention of Imphal-based journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem under the draconian sedition law and National Security Act (NSA) for criticising the Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh as a “puppet” of Hindutva and using allegedly “obscene” language against the CM and the Prime Minister. The journalist was booked under Section 124A of the IPC, pertaining to sedition, and subsequently under the NSA. He was sacked from the local television channel that he worked for and spent months in prison where he fell seriously ill. The Manipur High Court has ordered his release. Such excesses have become commonplace. To take only a recent instance, former JNU student union president Kanhaiya Kumar, the candidate for the Communist Party of India (CPI) in Bihar’s Begusarai, is facing charges of sedition for being part of the students’ assembly that chanted allegedly seditious slogans.

The law on sedition has an egregious history. It goes back to the amendment in the Indian Penal Code during the British era to broaden the ambit of Section 124A taking into account the iconic trial of Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Defending the amendment, member-in-charge of the Bill (Mr Chalmers) said: “Language may be tolerated in England which it is unsafe to tolerate in India because in India it is apt to be transformed into action instead of passing off as harmless gas.” Since then sedition has been outlawed in the UK, but is commonly used here. It is being staunchly defended by the ruling BJP which has termed the Congress’s manifesto promise of repealing Section 124A as an effort to endanger national security. What passed off as “gas” in the more developed part of the world over a century back continues to be seditious and dangerous in today’s India.

In the Constitution and in the Constituent Assembly debates, a majority of the members had resisted the inclusion of the term “sedition” in the exceptions in Article 19(2) to the freedom of speech and expression, guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a). While the Supreme Court has, in Kedar Nath Singh case of 1962, upheld the Constitutional validity of 124A, it has severely restricted its application. However, since this law is open to misuse, it should have no place in the rulebook. Apart from sedition, defamation should be treated as a civil rather than criminal offence. The State should be made to compensate for wrong convictions. In the Malleshwaram bomb blast case of April 2013, Bengaluru police released three accused after failing to prove charges. The Karnataka State Human Rights Commission had sought compensation from the State for wrongful incarceration, setting a precedent for State accountability.