AN archaic law, enacted by the colonial masters to oppress the ‘natives’, should not — in theory — be difficult to jettison from the statute books. Sometimes, however, the masters of old are replaced by autocrats or, at the very least, quasi-autocrats seeking to quell a ‘troublesome’, rights-demanding populace. Thus, when former chairman Senate Raza Rabbani introduced in the upper house on Monday a bill to do away with sedition from the Pakistan Penal Code, it was akin to taking the bull by the horns. For the offence has increasingly become a go-to for state authorities seeking to clamp down on dissenting voices and independent thought. Civil rights activists — including student leaders and academics — have been targeted for demanding constitutional rights and even journalists singled out for publishing information that ran counter to the official narrative. In January, no less than 23 people were booked for sedition after being hauled up at a peaceful protest calling for the release of PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen, who had himself been arrested for the same, among other charges. Hearteningly, there has been civilian pushback. One of the leaders of the above protest filed a petition in the Lahore High Court asking it to declare the section of the PPC dealing with sedition as being ultra vires the Constitution. The Islamabad High Court also took an extremely dim view of peaceful protesters being charged with the crime.
Defined in Section 124A of the PPC, the offence is deemed to have been committed by an individual who 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 incites or attempts to incite dissatisfaction…” towards the government. The vague language of the law facilitates its abuse as a one-size-fits-all weapon to harass and intimidate inconveniently vocal individuals. The very raison d’être of the law is reflected in the names of some of the historical figures charged with sedition or put on trial for the offence. Among these were Maulana Mohammad Ali and Maulana Shaukat Ali — indeed, Gandhi himself — individuals who were the voice of an oppressed people and, therefore, those whom the British Raj wanted to silence. The government’s human rights minister has rightly criticised the sedition law as “an anachronism in an independent, democratic state”. There are other colonial-era black laws, such as contempt of court, which should also be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2020