The ‘sedition’ label

Updated 07 Oct 2020

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THE colonial curse of the sedition law hangs over us like the sword of Damocles, with dozens of political leaders and lawmakers being booked overnight in a case of alleged rebellion against the state. It emerged that a private citizen’s complaint to the Lahore police resulted in an FIR that named 41 people from the PML-N for a range of offences, including sedition.

The list includes two former prime ministers, three former generals and a string of former ministers — it even includes the sitting prime minister of Azad Jammu & Kashmir. Surprisingly, late on Monday night, when news of the sedition case did the rounds, two government officials publicly distanced themselves from the move.

Minister Fawad Chaudhry even said that the prime minister was not aware of this case and that when he learned of it, he condemned it. Section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code specifically states that the act of rebellion which is criminalised must be committed against the government; but with the government denying it is behind the case, the mystery as to who encouraged it to be filed can be left to the imagination.

In the past, such cases initiated by private citizens have been filed at the behest of elements that have generously handed out certificates of ‘traitorhood’ to activists and politicians. The entire episode reeks of panic, paranoia and poor thinking. That the prime minister of AJK was booked under this controversial law is preposterous and makes a mockery of Pakistan’s principled stand on Kashmir.

Those who relish in branding opponents as ‘India-sponsored traitors’ have foolishly booked Raja Farooq Haider, unwittingly conferring legitimacy, in the eyes of others, on Narendra Modi’s high-handed and despicable approach to Kashmir.

The draconian sedition law was a tool for the British to suppress the freedom struggle in the subcontinent against imperialism. Yet, this British Raj relic still haunts us today. The trend of labelling political opponents and critics as traitors, and accusing them of sedition, must end, and the government must investigate what happened in this case and revisit this repressive law.

For too long, journalists, politicians, academics and activists critical of the state have been hounded for their views and booked in such cases so that their words are stifled. Such tactics are menacing and vindictive, and have no place in a democracy.

They must be condemned by political parties across the board. It is not enough that a handful of ministers are condemning this case. The case must be withdrawn and the government must engage with opposition parties to review the anachronistic sedition law.

Furthermore, it must also actively discourage the labelling of political opponents as traitors. Those raising legitimate questions about governance, democracy and the separation of powers should not be punished, and should not have their patriotism questioned. Such actions have not worked in the past and are sure to backfire again.

Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2020