The disproportionate sentence passed on Dr Binayak Sen suggests India is waging war against its own people. This should come as no surprise, for India is in the paradoxical position of pursuing colonial policies without any colonies. This means that unusual pressure is placed upon its periphery, its outlying ‘hinterland’, which must be seized for the treasures it contains, to feed, not the poor, but the voracious growth of the economy.
The idea of sedition has, of course, strong colonial associations. Sedition, in its modern usage, first entered the English language during the Elizabethan period, towards the end of the sixteenth century. (from Latin –se apart, ire to go) At that time, it was interpreted as ‘inciting by words or writings disaffection towards the state or constituted authority.’
Sedition contained the notion, not only of illegal actions, but also of actions committed by unauthorised people: that is to say, it was essentially a pre-democratic concept, initiated by the lower orders, outlaws and riff-raff, unruly elements who had no stake in society. Laws against sedition were widely used in Britain when the franchise remained limited, particularly in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the more so since this coincided with the disruptions of early industrialism in Britain. Governments lived in fear of the mob, and its insurrectionist capacity. ‘Seditious libel’ was used to stifle free expression.
The last prosecution for sedition in Britain took place in 1972, in a case in which the accused were charged with inciting people to travel to Northern Ireland to fight for the Republican cause. The case was dropped. The crimes of ‘sedition’ and ‘seditious libel’ gradually withered away, and these outworn acts were repealed in Britain last year.
It is regrettable, but perhaps only to be expected, that such grand-sounding offences as sedition should have found a comfortable resting-place in India, where so many colonial echoes lead a sinister after-life, waiting to be invoked against dissenting voices and those who question the wisdom and integrity of an India, certified to have ‘emerged’ by none less than the President of the United States. The original British law on sedition stands, despite subsequent modification, as Section 124A of the Penal Code. ‘Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excited or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fines may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.’
That Dr Binayak Sen should have been subject to such immoderate punishment, when his calling is the relief of suffering among the most dispossessed, hints at the insecurity of those who know how fragile the trumpeted economic success of India is, how promiscuously distributed its rewards, and how estranged large segments of the population remain from the international hyperbole.
In many ways, the India of today bears a strong resemblance to the condition of Britain in the early nineteenth century, when the rising imperial power, whose reputation abroad struck awe into lesser peoples, had, at home, set in movement great rural-urban migrations, evicting people in large numbers from settled ways of life and sending them to fetid city slums, there to make their own accommodation with the forces of capital. At that time, too, Britain had seen the growth of an assertive middle class, which also demanded its place in the sun. So India today is represented, not by its excluded and impoverished majority, but by the showy lifestyle of a middle class which fills the malls and hypermarkets of the cities, seeking the meaning of life in a technology of its own creation. And beneath the hymns of praise to commodities, the voice of the dispossessed has been stilled, as the unemployed noiselessly sweep the fallen bougainvillea blossoms from the terrace, self-effacingly serve whisky and cocktails, silently swab marble floors, quietly open doors and unsmilingly sit behind the wheel of cars, conveying their betters to the superior destinations of power.
It would be astonishing if there were not convergences between the old imperial power and its legatee in the modern world. For like all rising powers, the territory it occupies is never sufficient for its own perceived needs. India now occupies its border spaces in much the same way that Britain once governed its own outer fringes – clearing the Highlands of Scotland of people for the sake of more profitable sheep, enclosing common land for private use, plundering Wales of its coal and tearing up the valleys that were exhausted of their riches in a mere two or three generations, doing nothing to mitigate hunger in Ireland, because this might interfere with the sacred laws of the free market. It should be noted that colonialism began at home; and nothing Britain practised in its global empire had not already been tried and tested in the British Isles; a story India seems only too ready to emulate.
So it is that India, that booming later miracle of the 21st century, constantly revisits is own past, seeking inspiration in the way it was treated by its former masters, in order to deal with its own contemporary recalcitrants and dissidents. Beset by the consequences of injustice to its minorities, its indigenous peoples, to victims of development sheltering in city slums, to the unfortunates of Kashmir, who occupy one of the most highly military pieces of real estate on earth, it is bound to have recourse to the blunt legal instruments bequeathed to it, directly and indirectly by its sometime rulers.
Hence the offence of sedition, a gift, if not of the gods, at least of imperialists who behaved like gods. How satisfying to still the tongues and the pens of those who persist in bringing to public attention disquieting truths.
The real offence of Dr Sen, like that of others threatened with charges of sedition, Arundhati Roy or SAS Geelani, has little to do with ‘sedition.’ They have disturbed the self-flattering image with which India has been beguiled by foreign leaders to their shores, people seeking markets, kickbacks, loot, easy pickings, cheap labour or any other advantages to be had from those ready to sell anything to the highest bidder. It is a great pity that government should have believed the blandishments of all the new East India Companies, which have come in such smart modern garb, sharp suits and battalions of security personnel with dark eyeshades and fast guns, bringing the more advanced trinkets of the hour, to cozen the people of India out of whatever they can be persuaded to part with.
Sen, Roy or Geelani are not the true anti-nationals. The true betrayers of India are those who act in the name of patriotism and pride of the waking giant, the power-house of tomorrow, the new arrival at the top table. Those who protest most loudly their devotion to their country are the truly seditious; that is, if anyone should be so foolish as to dwell on archaic offences, rather than addressing the epic inequalities which divide the people of India.