By Faraz Chandio
The legislative measures established during the British Raj era are still being employed to suppress dissident voices on the Indian subcontinent. A season of allegations of sedition has emerged in this region. The sedition law, originating from colonial times, has transformed into a potent tool for the Pakistani and Indian governments to quell opposing viewpoints.
In December 2019, Pakistan’s government utilized sedition charges against numerous individuals involved in the nationwide Students Solidarity March, an event advocating for the restoration of student unions and other demands. Among them, Alamgir Wazir, a participant in the march, was arrested on December 2 and has been in custody since then, accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
Similarly, on January 27, Manzoor Pashteen, leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), was arrested on charges of sedition following a late-night raid on his Peshawar residence. Subsequently, 23 others, including activists from the Awami Workers Party (AWP), were arrested and charged with sedition for participating in a protest in Islamabad against Pashteen’s arrest.
The PTM is a rights movement representing ethnic Pashtuns, advocating for accountability for alleged abuses by Pakistan’s military in its conflict with the Pakistan Taliban. Since its inception, the movement has faced sustained intimidation and arrests.
Although some AWP activists and PTM supporters have been released, numerous individuals, including Pashteen, remain incarcerated. They face the prospect of lengthy imprisonment for daring to criticize their government’s actions. This highlights the Pakistani state’s readiness to use the sedition law to silence those perceived as threats to its authority.
In neighboring India, the sedition law was infamously employed against Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, among others, in 2016. They were accused of shouting “anti-India” slogans during a protest. JNU’s reputation for harboring left-wing dissent has led India’s Hindu-nationalist BJP government to view it as an impediment and subject its faculty and students to unwarranted legal actions.
Recently, Sharjeel Imam, a JNU researcher, was charged with sedition for participating in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The sedition law has been wielded against various individuals, including trade unionists, environmentalists, and professors, across India.
What’s particularly noteworthy is that these baseless accusations are made under a law originally formulated and extensively utilized by the British Raj to suppress the anti-colonial movement in India.
Prominent nationalist leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak, predating Gandhi’s prominence, was subjected to the sedition law multiple times for “inciting the public” through his writings. In his 1916 trial, he was defended by a young barrister named Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who later played a pivotal role in the partition of India and the founding of Pakistan.
During the 1920s to 1940s, numerous Indians, including Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar, Bhagat Singh, and M.N. Roy, were tried under the sedition law. Before independence, this law epitomized the absurdity of colonial rule, as British officials employed it to label locals as “foreign agents” in their own land.
Independence activists imprisoned for “sedition” wore this charge as a badge of honor, seen by the public as heroes, as patriotism then meant dissenting against those in power.
Upon their emergence, India and Pakistan grappled with the paradox of inheriting both anti-colonial politics centered on popular sovereignty and a colonial state machinery geared toward suppression and intimidation. This dichotomy continues to haunt both nations, with the sedition law serving as a reminder of the colonial mindset, viewing the state not as a servant of the people, but as a tool to subjugate them.
A striking facet of recent repression is the emphasis on “seditious speech.” Presently, in both Pakistan and India, proving an intent to undermine national sovereignty is not essential to level a sedition charge. Mere speeches and slogans are considered “evidence” of a deeper conspiracy against the nation-state.
Sedition laws are now being used by states to enforce acceptable discourse and thought in the public domain, exposing their vulnerability to rightful and peaceful criticism of divisive and exclusionary policies.
This insecurity arises from the states’ inability to fulfill their obligations to the public. In Pakistan, the Imran Khan-led government has entered a stringent deal with the IMF, resulting in severe austerity measures. Education budgets have been slashed by 40%, health services privatized, and food shortages and inflation are rampant.
Similarly, India’s economy has deteriorated, with economic growth plummeting from 8.1% in early 2018 to 4.5% in late 2022. Unemployment and agrarian crises have forced impoverished families to cut back on food consumption, contradicting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of “Acche Din” (Good Days).
The economic uncertainty has driven the region’s ruling classes to fabricate adversaries to divert attention from their inability to provide citizens with a decent standard of living. This has led to accusations of being “Indian agents” in Pakistan and “ISI agents” (referring to Pakistan’s intelligence agency) in India.
Nonetheless, resistance against authoritarianism is growing in both countries. Young citizens are at the forefront, opposing fear-mongering methods used by ruling elites to persuade the public to relinquish fundamental rights to safety, employment, and free speech.
These movements also derive their legitimacy from the constitution. In India, anti-CAA protestors assert that discriminatory laws undermine the constitution’s foundation and promote communal majoritarianism. Pakistani activists defend freedom of speech and unionization as essential constitutional elements, crucial to democracy.
In response, the state employs charges of treason and sedition against protesters, even as the same legal document is designed to govern the state.
Activists in both India and Pakistan are increasingly demanding the abolition of sedition laws, asking a pertinent question: Who are they being seditious against when they themselves are the rulers? A sincere resolution of this query could help the subcontinent overcome the shadow of colonialism and redefine patriotism in an era of insular and punitive nationalism.
The writer is an author and Journalist Farazchandio1@gmail.com Twitter: farazchandio1