(Published in the Business Standard, 28 December 2010)
“Section 124-A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizens. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has an affection(sic) for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence. But the section under which Mr Banker [a colleague in non-violence] and I are charged is one under which mere promotion of disaffection is a crime.”
These words, from Mahatma Gandhi’s closing statement during his trial for sedition in 1922, have been quoted widely in India this year, along with the resurrection of the antiquated laws of Raj India. There were cries of sedition when Arundhati Roy made some remarks on the alienation felt by Kashmiris; this week, the human rights activist Dr Binayak Sen was sentenced to life imprisonment for sedition by a Raipur court in a much-criticised judgement.
By 1909, fears of sedition had turned the British government in India into tireless readers. Sisir Kar’s history of books banned in Bengal under the Raj quotes from a typical circular of the time that urges officers to carefully examine all suspicious material, to “facilitate the immediate detection of seditious books”. As Gandhi was to note, the affection of the subject for the king, or the citizen for the state, could not be commanded—and it was markedly absent in those early years as the national movement gathered steam.
Bankimchandra’s Ananda Math had been in print for 18 years at this time, and as its author, Bankim was struggling between the demands of his job as a government official and the need to express his discontent with the Raj. Between the first and the eighth edition of Ananda Math, the novel that added Vande Mataram to the lexicon of revolution and that would inspire the next generation of revolutionaries, Bankim made continuous changes to the text, often excising or softening sentences that seemed over-critical of the British. In one of the more unusual applications of censorship, there were periods when Ananda Math itself was not banned—but the singing of Vande Mataram was proscribed, and the anthem treated as seditious.
By the time Sharatchandra’s Pather Dabi (1926) was published, featuring, as the Government of Bengal Yearbook commented, “The most powerful act of sedition in almost every page of the book,” disaffection was the spirit of the times. The long history of Pather Dabi, the confiscation of the novel, the exchange between Tagore and Sharatchandra on the impact and validity of criticizing those in power, points to the fact that it was impossible for the Raj to allow questioning of the state without also admitting the disaffection and disillusionment of the writers who questioned it. Tagore disappointed Sharatchandra by praising the tolerance of the British, and by implicitly refusing to endorse the younger author’s insistence that criticism was the only valid response to British rule.
Books like Ananda Math and Pather Dabi were only the most celebrated of their kind; in the attempt to check sedition, journals and books were often confiscated and plays were routinely proscribed or censored. Sisir Kar cites an unwittingly revealing letter from the Police Commissioner, allowing the production of Bankimchandra’s Chandrashekhar to continue if certain objectionable portions were expunged—on pages 10, 19, 20, 33, 36, 40, 41, 43, 51, 54, 55, 80, 120,121, 123, 124, 127, 133, 148 and 151, leaving one to wonder what was left of the play.
All of this, including the trials of the likes of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Aurobindo Ghose for sedition and conspiracy, were part and parcel of the paraphernalia of a state that was an occupying power, and that had to command the affection of the people who came under its rule. In an independent India, the question is whether the state should still feel paranoid enough to continue using a law where, as Gandhi puts it, “mere promotion of disaffection is a crime”.
The writings of Arundhati Roy, for instance, or the work of Dr Binayak Sen, would have placed them in the time of the British Raj among the ranks of the disaffected. Their willingness, and the willingness of other writers and activists, to question the workings of the state are definitely signs of disaffection. But in a healthy democracy, and a healthy state, the affection of its writers and citizens would be earned, not commanded, and criticism would be welcomed, not seen as threatening. We need to ask whether the same laws that were used against Bankimchandra, Sharatchandra, Tilak and Gandhi should be pressed into service in a country that prides itself on its many freedoms.