NEW DELHI: An old 1870 law that a democratic state should have struck down seems to have become the weapon to muzzle dissent, used by politicians in power at the state and centre with increasing frequency, and without valid justification. The British used this law against Gandhi and other freedom fighters, and the modern Indian state in recent years and even more so in the past year, used it against artists, actors, writers, cartoonists, political opponents making arrests, and in many cases imprisoning the ‘offenders.’

Two sedition cases have been slapped against actor Aamir Khan in courts in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, for voicing his concerns about increasing intolerance. He is the most high profile individual in recent months to have been hit with this law, that is being used now increasingly to control the freedom of expression. Human rights organisations have urged the governments to remove this law, but to no avail, with different political parties---the list includes the Bharatiya Janata Party, Congress party, AIADMK, ---finding use for it to clamp down on ‘opponents’.

An Advocate Manoj Kumar Dixit filed the case against Khan in Kanpur because in his view the actor had made an 'anti-national' statement amounting to sedition.The case has been filed under IPC section 124 A (sedition), 153 A (promoting enmity between different groups on religious grounds) 153 B (Imputations) and 505 (statements amounting to public mischief).

A second complaint has been filed in a court in Bihar against Khan and his wife Kiran Rao by another advocate Sudhir Kumar Ojha in the court of Chief Judicial Magistrate Sushma Trivedi.The court fixed December one for hearing into the matter. Ojha stated in the complaint that he felt “hurt” hearing Aamir’s remarks. Khan has come under strong attack from the ruling BJP for expressing concern about growing intolerance in India. His remarks were more about his own disappointment, but even so have attracted right wing flak even as other political parties have rallied around him.

The sedition law was used against activist , public health specialist Binayak Sen for allegedly supporting the Maoists, charges that he has stoutly denied, and later in 2012 against cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in Maharashtra. Both were arrested, Sen was given life imprisonment but got bail after a long stint in jail. Trivedi was taken into judicial custody on charges of sedition over a series of cartoons against corruption. He was accused of uploading “ugly and obscene” content and of insulting the Constitution. This arrest led to considerable protest as well, and Trivedi was finally released. More so as it followed a circular issued by the Maharashtra government under the Congress party at the time, that a speech against a ‘government representative’ could be taken as sedition.

Gujarat Patidar leader Hardik Patel and at least two of his men have been slapped with sedition charges this year, a few weeks ago. This is after Patel took the state by storm, and led an agitation that virtually paralysed the state government. Patel was arrested by the Rajkot police in October for allegedly insulting the national flag, and later taken into custody by the Surat police on charges of sedition. The police claimed that he had told a Patel from his community “to kill” policemen, a charge that Patel of course has denied. In this case the police, under the BJP run State, slapped the charges with K N Patel, assistant commissioner of police, crime branch, who is the complainant in the second case, being quoted in the newspapers at the time as saying, "We have been keeping a watch on them for the last three months. After the Patels' mega rally at GMDC ground here on August 25, we found that the accused had incited the people to resort to violence. They made phone calls and used other media to incite people against the government."

"Our surveillance suggested they had asked people in different parts of the state to set on fire police chowkies and public transport buses, hurl stones, attack houses of MLAs and even bomb the Assembly. They hatched a conspiracy to topple the government," the police officer said. Since then Hardik Patel has quietened down considerably.

The Tamil Nadu police, under the AIADMK government, slapped sedition charges against Tamil folk singer Kovan for his campaign against alcohol. “TASMAC (state-run liquor shops) has affected every family. I will not stop singing, will continue to fight for prohibition,” he told ANI. “People might call this derogatory, but if you ask people who've been affected by this evil, they'll express much more than what I've expressed,” he added.Kovan is a member of the Makkal Kalai Ilakkiya Kazhagam (MKIK) performing arts group and was arrested in Tiruchirapalli on October 30 for two of his songs, 'Moodu Tasmac Moodu' and 'Ooruku oru Sarayam' that talk about alcoholism in the state and are also critical of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa.

The 1870 law used by the British against freedom fighters 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,[a] the Government established by law in[b] India,[c] shall be punished with imprisonment for life,[d] to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.

Explanation 1. — The expression “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.

Explanation 2. — Comments expressing disapprobation of the measures of the Government with a view to obtain their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.

Explanation 3. — Comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.

Gandhi, as editor of Young India was arrested and tried on charges of sedition on March 18, 1922. During his trial he said, "Section 124 A, 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 law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite to violence. But the section under which mere promotion of disaffection is a crime. I have studied some of the cases tried under it; I know that some of the most loved of India’s patriots have been convicted under it. I consider it a privilege, therefore, to be charged under that section. I have endeavored to give in their briefest outline the reasons for my disaffection. I have no personal ill-will against any single administrator, much less can I have any disaffection towards the King's person. But I hold it to be a virtue to be disaffected towards a Government which in its totality has done more harm to India than any previous system. India is less manly under the British rule than she ever was before. Holding such a belief, I consider it to be a sin to have affection for the system."