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Sedition Cross-examined

Understanding the Contradictions of India’s Democracy

Ankita Pandey ( teaches political science at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. She recently finished her DPhil at the University of Oxford.

Sedition in Liberal Democracies by Anushka Singh, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018; pp xii + 393, ₹ 995.

There is an oft-repeated pattern in progressive talks and petitions dealing with sedition in India. Legal experts, journalists, academics and civil society-based activists often argue that Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which defines sedition, is a political tool used primarily to silence dissent. They remind us that in colonial India sedition was used to arrest and detain several well-respected nationalists and find support in Jawaharlal Nehru and M K Gandhi’s statements that sedition has no place in a liberal democracy. They point out that the country which introduced the section on sedition to British India, that is, United Kingdom (UK), has itself since abolished it. On these and other similar grounds, academics and activists have long demanded the repeal of this section. These oft-repeated assertions are necessary, for repeating what we believe in, strengthen our convictions, reaffirm the worth and value of the demand, and mobilise public opinion in its favour.

However, these political positions also define the limits of what is said and written about sedition in India. To engage with sedition analytically, one needs to go beyond the assertions made in taking a political position on sedition. A couple of recent studies that focus on the jurisprudence on free speech and sedition in India have been undertaken by Siddharth Narrain (2011), Lawrence Liang (2016) and Gautam Bhatia (2016). Anushka Singh’s book, Sedition in Liberal Democracies, is an excellent addition to these engagements. Singh adopts legal, historical, and anthropological approaches to understand the evolution and practice of sedition as well as its normative relationship with a liberal democracy.

Conflicts and Contests

The central theme of the book is to reveal the competing tendencies within a liberal democratic state, in particular India, as it tries to accommodate the twin political impulses of liberalism and democracy. Singh engages with the work of Carl Schmitt and Chantal Mouffe, both theorising the persistent tensions that result from the essential conflict that is a liberal democracy. “It is in the contestations emerging from the convergence of these conflicting tendencies that the category of ‘extreme speech’ of which sedition is a kind, emerges” (p 3). In this review, I will offer some suggestions to think further about the central theme, that is, the contradictions of Indian democracy that Singh presents us with, but first let me present an account of how Singh arrives at her conclusion.

The first two chapters are a comparative study of sedition within the legal regimes of four countries: the UK, the United States (US), Australia, and India. It turns out that India is the only country to continue using the same definition of sedition that was introduced in British India in 1870. The other three countries have either abolished, restricted or modernised their sections on sedition. Singh, however, qualifies this observation by pointing out that this does not necessarily mean that Western democracies have become more tolerant of political opposition or dissent. Instead, they restrict “extreme” speech by legislating newer security and counter-terror laws, rather than using sedition. The next four chapters of the book focus on India. Chapter 3 focuses on the historical evolution of cases, trials, and verdicts on sedition in colonial India. These were against editors of newspapers and prominent leaders like Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and, just a year before independence, Sheikh Abdullah. During the anti-colonial movement, being seditious was seen as democratic political resistance by the nationalists. In time, however, sedition would come to mean deshdroh or anti-nationalism. The next chapter traces the journey of sedition in postcolonial India where other security laws also came into force. It examines first the debates of the Constituent Assembly and then the judicial trials that were centred around sedition. Through these debates we witness how the Supreme Court disaggregated between categories like a strong criticism of the government, incitement to violence, disaffection, and disapprobation in order to define the scope of the Section 124A.

Singh then moves from a jurisprudential perspective of sedition to its practice and deployment on the ground. Predictably, Singh finds that in its everyday application, sedition is deeply embedded in local politics and in variables such as caste, class, and community. For instance, her fieldwork reveals that in Haryana various marginalised groups experience sedition as a tool for upper-caste domination. In the final chapter Singh chronicles the recent cases of sedition in India to demonstrate how the law and its popular understanding as deshdroh play out. In case after case, she demonstrates that successive governments have deployed sedition in order to criminalise political opposition. This is also made evident by the fact that there is an extremely low rate of prosecution for sedition but a high rate of registration of cases. Evidently, such cases are registered merely to intimidate and inconvenience movement groups and activists. In her conclusion, she returns to the theme of the persistent contradictions within a liberal democracy, “[T]he general finding in relation to all liberal democracies interrogated in this work points towards an enduring discomfort among all regimes with political dissent” (p 363). In particular, Indian democracy is characterised by a “moment of contradiction in relation to sedition” (p 365). In the next section I engage with this theme and ask if sedition has survived in India due to the internal paradoxes resulting from the two contradictory sides of liberalism and democracy? Or is it possible that the two contradictory sides in this equation were never evenly matched and sedition has survived in India due to a tragic resolution of the two?

Partnership and Rivalry

Singh’s observation regarding the contradictions in Indian democracy stands on the shoulders of giants in postcolonial scholarship on Indian democracy and India’s political economy. Sudipta Kaviraj (1997, 2010) and Partha Chatterjee (1986, 2007) amongst others have argued that both the colonial state as well as the postcolonial Indian state have suffered and sustained contradictory impulses. In the realm of political-economy, Francine Frankel (1979) wrote about the paradox between a commitment to radical social change on the one hand and capitalist development on the other. Singh identifies sedition to be a manifestation of a moment of contradiction in Indian democracy but stops there. I believe her book would be considerably richer with a long-term historical analysis of the two contradictory sides through the lens of sedition. With over seven decades of India’s democratic journey to observe, the career of these foundational contradictions in Indian democracy could itself be explored.

For instance, one wonders if the two contradictory sides, that is, liberalism and democracy are evenly matched or were they ever so? What has been the evolution of the two forces that are fuelling this contradiction? One of the most fundamental and universalisable liberal value is liberty or freedom. Let us consider the status of liberal values and practice in contemporary India. A quick survey of the stories reported and opinion pieces in the newspapers (Bhargava 2018; Mehta 2018) will confirm that developments in contemporary India indicate a troubled status of citizen freedoms, in particular the freedom of speech and expression. Conservative voices within several communities have gained a bigger foothold. Self-proclaimed custodians of morality are prescribing life choices for the young. Increasingly, more and more people in the public sphere; writers, journalists, comedians, academics, even ordinary people find it difficult to express themselves freely or have become cautious regarding what they say and write. In one of her chapters Singh quotes the report of the World Press Freedom Index where India has slipped three positions to be at 136 out of 180 countries. Self-appointed representatives of their communities, seemingly hurt, often take offence and then take law into their own hands.

Strong surveillance mechanisms have been introduced that allow for severe breach of privacy without the necessary safeguards instituted. Harassment, online trolling, and intimidation of various public figures is now routine. “Left liberals” or “liberal elite” are terms that are used pejoratively to refer to an ostensible numerical minority that is disconnected with the realities of the country. The kind of legitimacy freedom or liberty ought to enjoy in order to perpetuate this contradiction between liberalism and democracy seems to be absent.

I suggest that the key relationship that needs to be examined to think through the liberal-democratic contradiction and the role of sedition within this matrix in India is one between liberalism and nationalism. It is this relationship that holds the key to an analytical understanding of why sedition has survived in India in its colonial form. Scholars of the nature and evolution of liberalism in India have noted that liberalism in India came on the shoulders of nationalism (Khilnani 1979; Bhargava 2018). In her essay on the various forms of Indian liberalisms, Rochana Bajpai demonstrates that key episodes of nationalist politics in India invoked classical liberal values: freedom from arbitrary arrest, right to vote, freedom of speech for press, etc (Bajpai 2012). Yet, where nationalism so required, classical liberal principles were recast, like in the choice of economic protectionism over free trade in the decade following independence. In the trajectory of Indian democracy nationalism could trump liberal principles, but not the other way around. In fact, politics in India today is the most intense period of nationalism trumping over liberal values. In the first few decades of Indian independence, sedition was a tool to manage the contradictory impulses, on the one hand of a commitment to democracy and on the other to secure the territorial unity of India as a nation.

Today with the triumph of a certain form of cultural nationalism (in the popular public opinions at least), sedition continues to be deployed frequently despite the fact that liberalism as one of the contradictory sides is significantly weak. In my opinion, it is the antecedent compatibility of nationalism and liberalism that fuels the subsequent antagonism between the two sides of liberalism and democracy in Indian politics.

The above observations were possible only because Singh has put together a rigorous, scholarly and interdisciplinary narration of sedition in Indian politics. It is a book that encourages its readers to engage with its subject matter. The detailed account of the history and practice of sedition would be of special relevance to those who are interested in
focusing on sedition within the larger galaxy of similar security and anti-terror laws. More broadly, the book would be of much value to students of history, politics, law, and journalism. Academically, the book paves the way to think through the nature of the Indian democracy, and politically it strengthens the grounds on which academics and activists have often repeated the demand to repeal Section 124A from the IPC.


Bajpai, Rochana (2012): “Liberalisms in India: A Sketch,” Liberalism as Ideology: Essays in Honour of Michael Freeden, Ben Jackson and Marc Stears (eds), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bhatia, Gautam (2016): Offend, Shock, or Disturb: Free Speech under the Indian Constitution, Delhi: Oxford University Press. 

Bhargava, Rajeev (2018): “A Moment for Indian Liberalism,” Hindu, 4 February,

Chatterjee, Partha (1986): Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? London, UK: Third World Books.

— (2007): “Democracy and Economic Transformation in India,” R R Kale Memorial Lecture, Gokhle Institute of Politics and Economics.

Frankel, Francine (1979): India’s Political Economy 1947–2004: The Gradual Revolution, Princeton University Press.

Kaviraj, Sudipta (1997): “A Critique of the Passive Revolution,” State and Politics in India, Partha Chatterjee (ed), New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

— (2010): “A State of Contradictions: The Post-Colonial State in India,” The Imaginary Institution of India: Politics and Ideas, New York: Columbia University Press.

Khilnani, Sunil (1979): The Idea of India, New Delhi: Penguin.

Liang, Lawrence (2016): “Free Speech and Expression,” The Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution, Sujit Choudhry, Madhav Khosla, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Lawrence Liang (eds), Oxford: Oxford Univerity Press.

Mehta, Pratap Bhanu (2018): “Blame it on the Liberals,” Indian Express, 28 June,

Narrain, Siddharth (2011): “‘Disaffection’ and the Law: The Chilling Effect of Sedition Laws in India,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 46, No 8, pp 33–37.

Updated On : 9th Aug, 2019


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