The abortive attempt on the life of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s rusticated student Umar Khalid in a high-security area in New Delhi close to Parliament House is a pointer to the cult of violence that is permeating the nation at large. It would, however, be foolhardy not to admit that misguided elements like Khalid have contributed strongly to the vitiated atmosphere that prevails. Khalid has been making incendiary statements which are a provocation to violence and criminal activity. That Khalid is on trial for sedition is a test case to determine how far a person can go in terms of democratic dissent.
On Monday, Umar Khalid was involved in a scuffle with an assailant whose pistol failed to fire because it got jammed, saving him by a whisker. Ironically, the incident happened outside the Constitution Club where Khalid was to participate in an event “Khauf se azaadi: Towards freedom without fear” organised by an NGO ‘United against hate.’
While it is shocking that Khalid’s lone assailant escaped after dropping his pistol in an area where there should have been fool-proof security, it is strange that such a man as Khalid is on bail for six months in a sedition case. It only strengthens the feeling that we have weak-kneed laws to deal with such cases and the interpretation of the law is still evolving.
Khalid said he had approached the police for protection two months prior but the police on its part claimed that they could not reach him because he was constantly on the move.
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Sedition cases must be tried by special courts and must be dealt with without delays. At the same time, it was important for the police to keep a close watch on Khalid’s activities in view of his intemperate speeches and provocative actions. That an important venue for seminars and other events was not equipped with adequate security speaks poorly of the Delhi police which is under the charge of the Central government.
It is a measure of the lack of fear of law that hours after his release from Tihar jail in the sedition case two years ago, Umar Khalid said he had no regrets of being jailed and was rather proud of being booked under the said charges. This reflects a degree of defiance that is disconcerting.
Umar Khalid and fellow students Anirban Bhattacharya and the then JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya were arrested on charges of sedition for their involvement in a controversial event organised on the JNU campus to protest the hanging of Afzal Guru, a young Kashmir terrorist.
While the law on sedition needs to be re-looked at because it dates back to the British days, there is a case for it to be applied with greater force to act as an effective deterrent against anti-national activity.
There is also the aspect of trial by the media which must be eschewed in the interests of justice and fairplay. Khalid’s supporters complain that some TV news channels went to town against Khalid, waging a crusade against him which pre-judged the issue and would have possibly influenced the course of justice.
Every sedition case has a common defence that the action was done in pursuance of Article 19(1) (a). i.e. it was his freedom of speech under which he made those statements. But what many are not aware of is Article 19(2) which states that a speech or an act should not be something which can invoke or incite others against the state. If something is capable of causing unrest in the nation, it can’t be defended by using Article 19(1) (a). Such an act which incites others to destroy the unity and integrity of the nation will be termed sedition and not free speech.
Whether the statements of Khalid, Anirban and Kanhaiya would stand judicial scrutiny will be revealed when the judgments come out. But for now, while Khalid must be provided due protection, he must desist from inflaming feelings against the nation.