Gist of The Hindu: May 2016

Gist of The Hindu: May 2016

War and possible peace in Syria

The agreement reached in Munich by major world powers, including the United States and Russia, to work towards a cessation of hostilities in Syria within a week is the most constructive step yet to find a political solution to the country’s civil war. For years, the world looked away when Syria was transformed 0into a geopolitical battlefield where several countries were involved, either directly or through their proxies, to maximise their interests. The war has nearly destroyed the country, triggering an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. A report released last week by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research paints a picture graver than what even the UN had estimated. About 470,000 people have been killed and 1.9 million injured since the crisis began in March 2011. Nearly 45 per cent of the population has been displaced, while life expectancy has dropped from 70 to 55.4 in five years. That a civil war in a small nation of about 23 million people was allowed to get this catastrophic, itself points to the failures of the international system.

The positive development in the Munich agreement is that both Russia and the U.S. have strongly come out for a cessation of hostilities. Russia is directly backing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, while the U.S. and its allies, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, support the anti-regime rebels. To be sure, both blocs have different solutions to offer for the crisis. While the Russians want the regime to be sustained, with or without Mr. Assad, the Americans and their allies want Mr. Assad to go. Still, there is some common ground. Both Washington and Moscow are fighting the Islamic State. Despite its military intervention in favour of the Assad regime, Russia is consistently pushing for an eventual political solution. The U.S. has over the years mellowed its hardline stand. Though it still calls for Mr. Assad’s ouster, it doesn’t say when he should go. This common ground opens the possibilities for a ceasefire, which, if it is put in place successfully, could set the stage for serious negotiations. But even the implementation of a ceasefire faces serious challenges. Since the Russian intervention, the regime forces have made substantial advances on the ground. The weakening of rebel positions has upset their regional backers. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have announced they are considering sending ground troops to Syria. If they do that, Russia would be forced to expand their involvement, which would dangerously escalate the crisis. Another key question is whether President Assad, already emboldened by the military advances made, would be ready to make concessions. In an interview last week he vowed to retake the whole of the country by force. But after the near-total destruction of Syria, it is delusional to think of a military solution. If the U.S. and Russia are committed to the Munich agreement, they should put serious pressure on their allies and bring them to the table. That’s the only way forward for Syria.

State overreach on the campus

The Union government’s response to the recent developments at Jawaharlal Nehru University betrays a disquieting intent to create an atmosphere of fear amongst its students and teachers. The rationale for the police action was an event to mark the anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru, a convict in the Parliament attack case, and it is alleged that slogans were raised against India’s sovereignty. However, unless there was actual incitement to violence, there really was no case for the police to swoop down on the campus, arrest students, and slap charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy on them. The Delhi Police seemed to have taken the cue from a remark made by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh that “anti-national activities” would not be tolerated, and invoked the draconian pre-Constitution law of sedition. The arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the JNU Students’ Union, who belongs to the All-India Students’ Federation, an organisation known to be affiliated to the CPI, is quite inexplicable, except in terms of the theory that he was chosen for his political antipathy to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the RSS’s student wing. Neither his union nor the party to which it is affiliated supports separatism in Kashmir or opposes parliamentary democracy. The union has in fact disassociated itself from the views expressed by a small group of students who organised the event. Yet, an impression is sought to be created that Mr. Kumar and many other like-minded student activists in JNU are ‘anti-national’. Once again, Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, which makes sedition punishable with life imprisonment, has been casually invoked despite the Supreme Court repeatedly cautioning that even words indicating disaffection against the state will not constitute the offence, unless there is a call for violence or a pernicious tendency to create public disorder. It is difficult to dismiss the police action as a routine or expected response by the state to reports of allegedly anti-national speeches. The JNU campus nurtures political opinion of all shades. It is a haven for legitimate dissent and a locus of inevitable differences. Its atmosphere should not be undermined by some to whom its intellectual space is an eyesore. In recent times, the suicide of a scholar in the University of Hyderabad roiled the student community across the country and created an upsurge against the ruling dispensation wielding its ideological influence on campus activities. The misconceived manner in which Afzal Guru was commemorated by a handful of JNU students should not be a provocation for tarring the students’ union with the brush of alleged anti-nationalism. The government should not sense in these developments an opportunity to suppress all dissent and seek to kill the ideological orientation of some student groups. Deviation from its own notion of nationalism cannot be treated as sedition. The line between dissent and treason may be thin to some, but the ability to distinguish between the two is a constitutional duty of the state. And given the history of its misuse and its incompatibility with a modern Constitution, Section 124-A of the IPC ought to be junked altogether.

Sedition and the government

The arrest by the Delhi Police, at the behest of the Home Ministry, of Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Students’ Union, on complaints of sedition, represents the latest deplorable attack on free speech by the Indian state. The move presents with vivid clarity the government’s pointed efforts at quelling any and every form of dissent. It also, through the invocation of Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, provides a stark reminder of the sheer depravity of some of our antiquated, colonial-era laws.

In the case of Section 124-A of the IPC, which defines sedition in wide, expansive terms, and punishes the act with imprisonment for life, the danger doesn’t lie merely in its abuse, or even in its potential for causing anti-democratic mischief. Unlike other provisions that might assume a pitiless character based on the nature of their usage, Section 124-A is intrinsically draconian. The problems in the clause are obviously apparent in its wordings, and the purpose that it unequivocally seeks to achieve: a suppression of all kinds of opposition.

Although sedition was originally a part of the IPC, as drafted by Thomas Macaulay, it was bizarrely dropped from the law when it was enacted in 1860. A decade later, the offence was introduced into the IPC as Section 124-A, following explicit recognition from the colonial government that the earlier omission was based on a mistake. The provision, as it reads today after some amendments, defines sedition as any action — whether by words, signs or visible representation — which “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India”. Tellingly, the section also contains a clarification to the effect that the word “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.

In 1942, for the first time, the courts in India raised pressing questions against the use of sedition as a weapon to chill all innocent forms of dissidence. Sir Maurice Gwyer, the chief justice of the Federal Court, ruled that “public disorder, or the reasonable anticipation or likelihood of public disorder, is the gist of the offence”. In so doing, he drew a necessity for a link between words uttered and actual threat of violence for maintaining a prosecution of sedition. But Gwyer’s ruling fell short of devising any rational test to determine how this link had to be drawn, as to how imminent an act of violence had to be for the state to prosecute a speech or expression. Nonetheless his reasoning gave to the offence of sedition an iota of legitimacy.

After the Constitution was adopted in 1950, it appeared Section 124-A would soon be denounced as an abhorrent relic of our colonial past. After all, efforts made by some members of the Constituent Assembly to include sedition as an express ground for limiting speech in Article 19(2) had been successfully resisted. Moreover, the reasoning adopted in the two earliest free speech cases decided by the Supreme Court — Brij Bhushan v. State of Delhi and Romesh Thapar v. Union of India — also pointed to the incompatibility of laws of sedition with the Constitution. In both these cases, efforts to ban publications on the purported threats that they posed to public safety were ruled unconstitutional, since the exception in Article 19(2), as it read then, was restricted to dangers to the security of the state. When the first amendment to the Constitution was introduced, to include public order as a specific limitation to free speech, Prime Minister Nehru was still categorical in his belief that the offence of sedition was fundamentally unconstitutional. “Now so far as I am concerned [Section 124-A] is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons, if you like, in any body of laws that we might pass,” he said, in Parliament. “The sooner we get rid of it the better.”
Yet, more than 65 years later, sedition continues to not only remain in the IPC, but also occupies a pride of place in the state’s arsenal. This is because, astonishingly, in spite of two different High Courts having found sedition unconstitutional, in 1962, the Supreme Court upheld Section 124-A, in Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar . Here, the court adopted a flawed premise that the law was enacted in the interest of public order, which was by then one of the specifically recognised limitations to free speech. Although this ruling is in accord with elements of Gwyer’s reasoning, it is clear, as we saw earlier, that the colonial government thought of seditious speech as punishable on its own accord. They saw no requirement for the establishment of any link between such expressions and the maintenance of public order.

In the decades since Kedar Nath Singh , Indian free speech jurisprudence has gone through substantial change. The court has proceeded towards expounding something resembling a practical theory that distinguishes advocacy and incitement. In 1995, the court acquitted some men who had raised a number of seemingly incendiary slogans in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, on the grounds that there existed no link between the slogans and actual threats to public order. Last year, in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India , in declaring unconstitutional the notorious Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, the court ruled that speech howsoever offensive, annoying or inconvenient cannot be prosecuted unless its utterance has, at the least, a proximate connection with any incitement to disrupt public order.

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Courtesy: The Hindu