SLAPP To Shut Up
Libel is not enough. Criminal charges are slapped
As acronyms go, this one is illustrative of intent. The full form is ‘Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation’. It means a planned, legal assault on the freedom of speech. A ‘shut-up-or-else’ threat that hits those who annoy or expose. Big brother versus the small guy. With strange, draconian laws to quell disruption. Our Constitution allows free speech. Within limits, of course. The rub is that we lack good losers. We have a surfeit of very thin-skinned brethren who magnify every statement a million-fold; then either distort, or embellish, with manufactured venom; and all inconvenient truths are painted black. With predetermined results. Take this case.
An author, advocate by profession, takes the oppressive rulers head-on. He writes against the evils of subjugation by foreign powers, of the wholesale destruction of the local economy, of mass killings, massacres. He rails against militancy imposed on his countrymen, against their own. He calls on his people to stop obeying orders that are blatantly illegal. He asks them to rebel.
The government swoops down on the author. Libel is not enough. Criminal charges are slapped on him. He is arrested and brought to trial. The trial starts but the accused pleads guilty, right away. He says that he has broken every law that he is said to have. He corrects the prosecution’s statement by saying that he has been breaking the law much longer than charged!
Next, he agrees that his thoughts, either written or spoken, had ignited passions far beyond his intentions or wildest beliefs. Yet, he threatens, if not incarcerated, he would continue to agitate, he would write and speak. If his remarks, on his disaffection, had led to violence, though he never wished it to be so, he must take the blame. In other words, he asks to be shown no mercy. Discharged, he would continue working to throw off the foreign yoke.
You be the judge.
Every revolution is illegal, until it succeeds. The man was jailed for six years. Twenty eight years later, having succeeded in his aim, he fell to an assassin’s bullets, fired not by a foreigner, but by his own countryman.
Today, he is known as The Mahatma.
Section 124 A of The Indian Penal code states: “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 excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.” The expression ‘disaffection’ includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.
For an imperial power, it was a catch-all law, whereby any sort of unpleasant activity would lead to the wrong side of the bars. By opting to plead guilty, Gandhi showed his disdain for those who curtailed the freedom of his countrymen and their right to speak.
Section 124 A. It can be, and still is, used. Along with the ambivalent word, ‘disaffection’. Does not every political speech by the opposition stress ‘disaffection’? Would you vote for the non-ruling party if it sang the praises of the incumbent? Every word, uttered at the stump, is specifically meant to cause loss of affection. No politician would be worth his salt if he did not incite passions to change the government that was not his. Yet, on the face of it, strictly read, 124 A must apply.
Nowhere is the word ‘sedition’ English ‘cede’ used. It originates from ‘sede€’, that is, to part, to render asunder. It implies a break-up. The Section, as initiated by the British, avoided the word because it would not be applicable to internal strife, which was simply calling for independence.
As for the Mahatma’s ‘sedition’ case, aware of the harshness and immorality of the law, the judge, while convicting, had this to say. “If the course of events in India should make it possible for Government to reduce the period and release you, nobody would be better pleased than I.”
By the way, while quitting India, did not the British themselves break up the country into parts?
(Bapoo Malcolm is a practising lawyer in Mumbai. Please email your comments to [email protected])
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