HomeIndiaRabindranath Tagore Spoke Strongly Against Sedition Law In 1897 On The Eve Of Tilak’s Arrest

Rabindranath Tagore Spoke Strongly Against Sedition Law In 1897 On The Eve Of Tilak’s Arrest

By Sankar Ray

It was Rabindranath Tagore, the myriad-minded poet, thinker and staunch internationalist who stood up openly at a public meeting in 1897 at the historic Town Hall of Calcutta, then India’s capital in protest against the infamous sedition act, the day before it was first used –Section 124A of Indian Penal Code. It was the first protestation against the Sedition Act which was introduced in 1870. The British rulers at that time booked Bal Gangadhar Tilak for sedition—Queen Empress vs. Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1897).

Standing straight he read out an essay captioned Kantharodh (throttled voice) 125 years ago.. The very beginning of it, translated into English, read: “Today the language in which I have risen to read this essay is the language of Bengalis, the language of the weak, language of a vanquished nation; yet our authorities are afraid of this language. One of the reasons of this fear is that they don’t understand this (Bengali) language. And wherever there is darkness of ignorance, there is an eeriness of blinded apprehensions.”

Tilak earned the wrath of the Raj for writing articles in his Marathi newspaper Kesari criticising government’s lapse in curbing the plague epidemic in India. He was punished by the Bombay high court for sedition under Section 124A and jailed for 18 months .Tilak was held guilty by a jury comprising nine members- six white jurors voting against and three Indian jurors voting in his favour.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi faced a trial in a sessions court in Ahmedabad on 18 March 1922, for “bringing or attempting to excite disaffection towards His Majesty’s government established by law in British India.” He was imprisoned for 12 months. Gandhi famously said: “Section 124A under which I am happily charged is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by the law. If one has no affection for a person, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence.”

Tagore  said at his meting that the new sub-section of IPC might be misused by the colonial rulers that were paranoid and vindictive – a reflex of cowardice inside. He was prophetic. In a chaste Sanskritised prose, packed with subtle innuendos and sharpness, he wrote: “ I am neither rebellious, nor a hero, nor presumably, a simpleton. I am not desirous of being trampled by the raised colonial sceptre and succumb to it accidentally. But I do not know where and at which corner the masculine ruler reposes surreptitiously. I do not clearly know the place setting foot at which might lead me to be beaten by the ruler’s mace and be fallen. For, my ruler does not understand my language. Hence, his mace may blindly hit me like suddenly appearing meteor, crossing the limits of penal code, thus make inner senses of a weak animal shiver.”

At that time, there were several high class orators among national leaders who preferred to remain silent. The poet who cracked Nobel Prize for literature 16 years later metaphorically criticised then. “At such a juncture, symptomatically it is benignly clever to remain totally mum and in our unfortunate country, many are away from their duties to play safe”, he pointed his displeasure at roaring orators preferring to stay mum at their lair.

The bard ingenuously described the notorious sub-section of IPC as medieval in nature. Indeed, it was frequently used vindictively by the Raj. The Privy Council had snubbed the colonial executive albeit infrequently for applying the tortuous sub-section. Remember the case – Niharendu Dutt Majumdar vs. King Emperor (1942) FCR 48. The British judicial apex cautioned the British oppressor rulers crisply “public disorder or the reasonable anticipation or likelihood of public disorder”. The judges concurred that sedition would mean resistance or lawlessness in some form but if there is no incitement to violence, there is no sedition. The present regime at the centre, ‘saffronite’ government of the Bharatiya Janata Party with Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister and Amit Shah as the minister of home affairs as also BJP-ruled state governments travel beyond the bounds of Sec 124A treating non-violent and peaceful protest as seditious- a tendentious misuse often out of political vendetta.

Theoretically, the concepts of sedition and nationalism are inter-related – both postulating an exaggerated notion of love for the nation or chauvinism .Little wonder, Tagore was opposed not only to nationalism, but patriotism too in some way. “Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity” he said . Two of his songs, Jana Gana Mana and Amar Sonar Bangla are national anthems of India and Bangladesh but that does not mean he endorsed nationalism. Gandhiji in an obituary to the poet succinctly wrote “we have lost the greatest poet of our age  …an ardent nationalist who was humanitarian.”

A hard core humanitarian for which the motto of Viswa Bharati has been Yatra Vishwa Bhabatyekonedam (Where the world resides in a single nest), the muse introduced.. Like Marx, he was anti-statist. The communist or socialist society (synonymous with cooperative society) that Marx envisioned will be based on ‘collective self-activity, while Tagore who campaigned for a cooperative society, driven by ‘sammilito atmokartitwo’) collective self-authority’, pointed out Marx-scholar of international fame PareshChattopadhyay in a talk delivered in Kolkata in 2011.

Social scientist and subaltern historian Partha Chatterjee in an article in 2016 in Economic and Political Weekly snapped fingers at judiciary “Our courts, so fond of the modus vivendi rather than clear interpretation, have shied away from pronouncing Section 124A unconstitutional but have, instead, in repeated judgments, emphasized the distinction between advocacy and incitement and insisted that mere speech unconnected to actual harm caused against the state cannot be punished under this law”.

But for leniency by judges – an indulgence not all open to the judiciary- the saffron rule could not be increasingly oppressive and vindictive. The death of Father Stan Swamy in jail custody is glaring evidence. Ajay Datta, a human rights activist, associated with the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties and a lawyer, said: “Misuse of Section 124 A is nothing new. When the CPI was banned, it was misused. Thereafter too it was misused, but its misuse ever since Narendra Modi became the PM increased disproportionately.

Somnath Lahiri, lone CPI member in the Constituent Assembly of India (until 14 August 1947) spoke against the Sedition and demanded its non-inclusion in his speech on 29 April, 1947. The CPI leaders were continuously harassed in the course of the freedom movement. Lahiri a great orator mentioned the pernicious impact of the 1870’s British statute and appealed to the leaders of the Congress who were going to form the first Government in independent India to do away with the sedition law. His appeal was unheeded by the Congress Government after it came to power in August 1947. In the 75th year of independence, finally, the Supreme Court has kept the 124A section of the statute in abeyance till the centre comes out with its review before the next hearing in the third week of July this year. This is a big step forward but the abrogation of the statute is still not final. (IPA Service)

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