July is a humid month in Calcutta, and it was sweltering in the Calcutta Supreme Court when The Reverend James Long was indicted “for the publication of various libels in a pamphlet known as the Nil-Durpan”.

 

As the publisher of Dinbandhu Mitra’s play, Long, an Irish Anglican priest, was fined and briefly jailed in July 1861 – Babu Kaliprasanna Sinha paid his fine. But the trial was ferociously argued, laying bare the growing fears of the British government over the growth of what might be called disaffection among their Native subjects. Long was excoriated for his irresponsibility: “Had we not seen by what a tender thread we hang? Have not the late mutinies taught us how unsafe is our position?”

The prosecution agreed that perhaps there were some indigo planters whose conduct might be better – this was barely a year or two after the rebellion against indigo planters by local farmers, which had spread from Nadia across half of Bengal. “But he utterly denied that any body of civilised men, men moreover whose interest it was to treat the Natives well, could be guilty of the atrocities, could revel in such a glut of vice as depicted in that libellous drama the Nil-Darpan.”

The consequences of allowing the public to watch dramas of this nature would be terrible, the prosecution argued: they would believe that Englishmen could commit offences that would be abhorred at home, with impunity here, the public might believe that injustices were committed by planters, and English officials, that would bring down “wholesale destruction, ruin and death upon the ryot”!

Having argued strenuously that the planters were not at fault, The Rev Long’s accusers turned to the real culprits: “It was just and right to attribute the disturbed state of the country to a set of slanderers… Would natives come and offer their labour if they believed they would be compelled to take advances, be ill-treated, ruined and their daughters violated?”

There were no laws in place at that time that could prevent the production of such plays, and Nil-Darpan continued to be performed. Long’s plight was captured in songs sung on the streets that spoke of “Longer holo karagar” – Long in jail – while the “indigo monkeys” ruined golden Bengal – “Nilbandare sonar Bangla, Kallo bhai charkhar”.

It became one of the first modern dramas for which tickets were sold, a departure from the conventional practice of performances to which a select gathering were invited. In 1875, The Great National Theatre staged Nil-Darpan in Lucknow, with Binodini Devi as part of the cast. Rustom Bharucha quotes her description of what happened next, in his book Rehearsals of Revolution:

“Came the scene where Rogue Sahib (Mr Rogue, a planter) tortures Kshetromoni (a woman from a farming clan)… As soon as that happened, there was a commotion among the European spectators. They became agitated and crowded near the footlights. A few red-faced soldiers took out their swords and climbed on the stage. Others tried to hold them back. Oh, what a commotion! What a running about! … I thought they would surely behead us.”

In response to this, The Dramatic Performances Act was drafted and passed in 1876 – it was the first piece of colonial legislation to bring censorship into Indian government, and it marked the first mention of sedition in this context.

“The primary object of this Bill is to empower the Government to prohibit Native plays which are scandalous, defamatory, seditious or obscene. The necessity for some such measure has been established by the recent performance in Calcutta of a scurrilous Bengali drama, to prevent which the existing law was found insufficient.” Later amendments amplified that plays that were “likely to excite feelings of disaffection to the Government established by law in British India” would be banned.

The new law was swiftly tested. On March 4 1876, the police raided the Great National Theatre. They arrested eight members who were performing The Police of Pigs and Sheep – this was a clever reference to Sir Stuart Hogg and Mr Lamb, the Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner of Police. The playwright, Amrit Lal Basu, the producer, and the actor Upendranath Das were arrested and jailed for a month.

 

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As for the sedition law, introduced into the Indian Penal Code by the British in 1870, it was soon tested by the Bangodashi case, and most famously, in the trial of Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1897. That trial, his 18-month imprisonment, and the subsequent use of sedition laws against many publications and many of the prominent figures of the freedom struggle, including Mahatma Gandhi, has been extensively reported.

 

But a small footnote might be in order; the sentencing of Lokmanya Tilak was heavily influenced by the massive newspaper campaign against him, conducted chiefly by the Bombay Gazette and The Times of India. These two papers were relentless in their condemnation of Tilak, and helped to make the case for sedition against him.

On June 30, 1897, Tilak wrote to The Times of India:

“Sir, your continued malicious remarks about me and about the journals published by me compel me to write this letter. … I should have attributed this to your ignorance of the language in which the Kesari is published, as well as what was going on in the city at the time, had I not perceived a deliberate intention in your writing, as well as those of “Shackles” and “Justice”, to pervert and misrepresent obvious facts at a time when they think they can do the greatest of mischief…”

In any democracy, when a law becomes an instrument of injustice – and sedition has been grossly misused in recent years, applied carelessly and maliciously to NGOs, film actresses, folk singers, writers of histories of caste etc – it becomes essential to look at the origins of that law. It is also crucial to prevent similar laws from sneaking in through the back door, as is the case with several provisions of the proposed Maharashtra Protection of Internal Security Act.

Sedition has a starkly clear history – it was intended to prevent the Natives from telling harsh truths about their government, by declaring that criticism was “disaffection”. In addition, Tilak’s case demonstrates the dangers of trial by media.

There is only one more point to add: an empire and a company ruling by force needed sedition to prop up its iniquitous regime. A free country doesn’t. It is immaterial that previous governments have failed to dilute or repeal the law. There is no excuse any more for holding on to an outdated law that was first employed to protect a foreign government, a non-Indian police force, and external corporate interests from scrutiny and critique.

(Published in the Business Standard, August 30, 2016)