It is time for India and Pakistan to repeal their sedition laws

The laws that were created by the British Raj are still being used to stifle dissent on the Indian subcontinent.

Pakistan PTM protest Reuters
Supporters of PTM chant slogans during a country-wide protest over the arrest of their leader, Manzoor Pashteen, in Karachi, Pakistan on January 28, 2020 [Akhtar Soomro/Reuters]

It appears to be sedition season on the Indian subcontinent. A relic of the colonial era, the sedition law has become a potent weapon in the hands of the Pakistani and Indian governments to crush dissenting voices. 

In December 2019, Pakistan’s government charged hundreds of people with sedition for taking part in the countrywide Students Solidarity March, which called for the restoration of student unions among other demands. One of the participants in the march, Alamgir Wazir, was arrested on December 2, and has since been languishing in jail for allegedly “conspiring to overthrow the government”.

On January 27, Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), was also arrested on charges of sedition in a late-night raid on his residence in Peshawar. A day later, police arrested and charged with sedition 23 other people, including several young activists from the left-wing Awami Workers Party (AWP), for attending a protest in Islamabad against Pashteen’s arrest. 

The PTM is an ethnic Pashtun rights movement that has been calling for accountability for alleged rights abuses committed by Pakistan’s military in its war against the Pakistan Taliban. The peaceful rights movement has been the target of a sustained campaign of intimidation and arrests since its formation.

Activists from AWP and many of PTM’s supporters have been released, but scores of activists remain incarcerated, including Pashteen himself. These individuals face the risk of spending years behind bars merely for daring to criticise the actions of their government. Their ordeal demonstrates the Pakistani state’s eagerness to use the sedition law to silence anyone it perceives as a threat to its authority. 

Across the border in India, the sedition law was notoriously invoked against Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student leaders Kanaiyha Kumar and Umar Khalid (among others) in 2016, for allegedly shouting “anti-India” slogans during a protest. JNU has a reputation for being a hotbed of left-wing dissent. As a result, India’s Hindu-nationalist BJP government believes the institution presents an obstacle to its authoritarian agenda and continuously harasses its faculty and students with frivolous lawsuits. 

Earlier this month, a researcher at JNU, Sharjeel Imam, was charged with sedition for participating in the ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. In recent years, the sedition law has been used against a host of other people, including trade unionists, environmentalists and professors across the country.

What is particularly remarkable about all this is that these unfounded accusations are being hurled through a law which was created and widely used by the British Raj against the insurgent anti-colonial movement in India. 

Bal Gangadhar Tilak, one of the most prominent nationalist leaders of colonial India before Gandhi’s emergence on the national stage, was tried several times under the sedition law for “inciting the public” through his writings. In his 1916 trial, he was defended by the young barrister, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who would later go on to become a major proponent of the partition of India and a founding father of the state of Pakistan.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, scores of Indians were tried under the sedition law, including Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Mohammad Ai Jauhar, Bhagat Singh and M N Roy, among others. Prior to independence, the sedition law was synonymous with the absurdity of colonial rule as British officials used this law to accuse locals of being “foreign agents” in their own lands. 

Independence activists across the subcontinent who were imprisoned for “sedition” carried the charge as a badge of honour. They were viewed by the general public as heroes, because back then being patriotic meant dissenting from those in power. 

Yet, at their birth, the nation-states of India and Pakistan were confronted with the paradox of acquiring the twin inheritance of anti-colonial politics premised on popular sovereignty and a colonial state apparatus that was geared towards silencing and terrorising the population. The gap between these two legacies continues to haunt both countries to this day. The sedition law is a reminder that the colonial logic, which sees the state not as a body that is designed to serve the people but a weapon to subdue them, is alive and well today. 

One of the most remarkable features of this latest round of repression has been the emphasis on “seditious speech”. Today, in neither Pakistan nor India is it necessary to prove that there was in place a plan of action to undermine national sovereignty to charge someone with sedition. Instead, speeches and slogans alone are considered “proof” of some deeper conspiracy against the nation-state. 

The states are using sedition laws to violently patrol the boundaries of acceptable speech and thought in the public sphere, exposing the vulnerability they feel in the face of righteous and peaceful criticisms of their exclusionary, divisive and dangerous policies. 

This sense of insecurity stems from the growing inability of these states to fulfil their responsibilities towards the public. In Pakistan, the Imran Khan-led government has signed one of the most punishing deals with the IMF,  resulting in unprecedented austerity. The education budget has been cut by 40 percent and the health sector is being privatised. Meanwhile, wheat shortages have marred the food market and inflation has reached an unprecedented 14 percent.

In India, the economy has also taken a sharp downturn. The economic growth has tumbled from an annual expansion rate of 8.1 percent in the first quarter of 2018 to just 4.5 per cent in the third quarter of last year. Rising unemployment coupled with an agrarian crisis left many poor families with no other option but to cut back their food consumption, shattering Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of delivering “Acche Din” (Good Days) for the country’s impoverished majority.

Moreover, the growing economic uncertainty has accelerated the need for the region’s ruling classes to produce fake enemies to distract the public from their persistent inability to provide them with a decent standard of living. 

This is why an unprecedented number of people across the political spectrum in Pakistan are facing the accusation of being “an Indian agent”, while in India, opponents of the government are being branded “ISI agents”, in reference to Pakistan’s intelligence agency. And this is why so many people are facing charges for allegedly serving the enemy in both countries today. 

Yet, there is growing resistance in both India and Pakistan against the authoritarianism engulfing the region. Two features stand out as salient in these burgeoning movements. 

First, they are being led by young citizens who are increasingly wary of the fear and hate-mongering methods that are being used by the ruling elites to convince the public to give up on their most basic rights to safety, employment and free speech. Thousands of students, for example, joined the campaign in India against the discriminatory CAA, posing perhaps the greatest challenge to the Modi government in India. 

Similarly, in Pakistan, the Students Solidarity March and the PTM emerged as youth-led movements and managed to unite the public behind a common cause at a time when mainstream political parties appear unable to build an opposition to a faltering political and economic system.

The second striking feature of these movements is that they base their legitimacy on the constitution. In India, the anti-CAA protestors are claiming that such discriminatory laws undermine the basic architecture of the constitution and facilitate India’s drift towards communal majoritarianism. In Pakistan, activists are defending freedom of speech and unionisation as basic elements of the constitution without which democracy becomes meaningless.

In both cases, the state has responded by hurling allegations of treason and imposing sedition charges on the protesters. This led to the bizarre situation where the state’s foremost legal document is transformed into subversive literature, signifying the crisis of legitimacy that haunts authoritarian governments in South Asia.

Activists in both India and Pakistan have recently become more vocal in their demand for the repeal of sedition laws. Indeed, they are asking the pertinent question: who are the people being seditious against if they, themselves are the rulers? An honest resolution of this question will not only allow the sub-continent to overcome one of the darkest legacies of colonial rule, but it will also aid us in figuring out what it means to be patriotic in a region where nationalism is becoming increasingly insular and punishing. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.