Arecent occurrence at a public event in Bengaluru caught the attention of many. The video showed a young teenager standing on the stage saying something and the very next minute she was being manhandled by a large number of the men on stage who towered over her. The plucky teenager seemed undaunted and kept trying to grab back the mike to continue speaking, but was overwhelmed by the sea of swarthy men jostling her, snatching the mike away, till finally she was led off the stage by uniformed policemen.

As a woman, I was dumbfounded at watching fellow speakers on the dais physically bully this young girl. On paying greater attention to details, it seems that the teenager, 18-year old Amulya Leona, had chanted “Pakistan Zindabad” at the commencement of her speech. Several people took umbrage to that. The politician who was hosting the show was worried that it would go against his patriotic image. She shouted out “Hindustan Zindabad” a couple of times thereafter and some on the stage joined in the chorus.

I later learnt that she has been booked for sedition under section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code. I was stunned for many reasons. If a young girl’s statement could be quoted out of context (it seems she was advocating peace amongst all the neighbours in the Indian subcontinent and celebrating these neighbours) and she could be arrested for that, it didn’t augur well. In all our teachings in school and the answers we have written in exams till date, one is always asked to provide a background before embarking on the answer.

In her case, the context was blithely ignored. If merely voicing the name of a neighbouring country attracts arrest, then what of Indian officials who have engaged with our neighbour at various levels of cultural exchanges and overt as well as backdoor diplomacy? What of controversial TV anchors who invite Pakistani nationals on their prime time programmes to get the views of both sides or even just to increase TRP ratings?

Here they are going one step ahead and actually engaging with Pakistani citizens. Would that attract harsher punishment under ‘advanced sedition’? In the current Indian scenario if we take the literal definition of sedition ‘incitement of resistance to or insurrection against lawful authority’ into account, then many people in authority would themselves be guilty. For, in our country, the main authority is actually the Constitution of India.

Those who try to undermine it or dilute its spirit in a big way are the ones actually indulging in sedition. What of politicians who destabilize state governments by luring parliamentarians this way or that by offers of money? Doesn’t tampering with lawfully elected state authority fall into the actual realm of this definition? The teenager’s sloganeering did not represent disaffection with the Indian or any government for that matter (as she broadly invoked the names of countries), no force was used, nor did her words incite anyone except a handful of burly males sharing the dais with her to push her off it!

If anything, friendly relations with the neighbouring state were promoted as we are not currently at war with any state. The teenager was merely exercising her right to freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. Some may find her plucky and some consider her a nuisance. But she is clearly not jail material. Keeping our country’s history in perspective, many families in North India have elderly members who were born on the Pakistan side of undivided India.

The freedom struggle gained us our independence in 1947, but political circumstances led to the painful and violent partition into two countries. Many elected to come to the Indian side of the fence, and many were caught unawares as they were holidaying here. Despite the traumatic turn of events, members of both these groups speak warmly and nostalgically of their childhoods and the neighbourhoods they grew up in.

My father was born and brought up in a place called PakPatan, district Montgomery, undivided India. At a change of guard ceremony at the Wagah border, my mother-in-law looked longingly across and said that Lahore is less than 30 km away – so near yet so far! Is it possible to hate the land of your parents’ birth? So what if different people live in that place now? Just like an old house you loved and lived in when you were young (hear the nostalgic ‘the house that built me’ by country singer Tanya Tucker to understand what I mean) remains in your memory no matter who the new tenant may be.

Wanting to revert to an old status quo of peace certainly doesn’t seem to amount to sedition. At a global level, the United Nations was formed with the chief objective of promoting world peace and security and friendly relations between countries. Respected dignitaries the world over offer to broker peace between warring nations in strife torn, volatile regions. The celebrated poet Rabindranath Tagore tried to elegantly uplift our thoughts above the confining boundaries of geographical regions and an aggressive nationalism which eroded our sense of a larger humanity.

This is also reflected in the Indian philosophy of Vasudhaiv Kutumbkam. If the people who inhabit countries at war don’t want to have their lifetimes defined by mortar, shelling and hatred, would we call them reasonable and sane or a seditious bunch? India is a signatory to the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which exists to ensure the protection of civil and political rights of citizens. It includes the right to freedom of thought (Article 18) holding one’s own opinions and expressing them (Article 19). Article 15 also suggests that ‘no one can be guilty of an act of criminal offence which did not constitute a criminal offence’!

Whether the sedition law itself is even necessary is a moot point. The judiciary has thus far been inclined to safeguard the freedom of speech of the Indian citizens in almost all their judgments. It is clear that if one’s thoughts are not in consonance with those of the government of the day it does not amount to sedition. The Indian Law Commission’s recommendation of 2018 was to invite a greater public debate on it and amend it to make it more citizen friendly.

This law was put in place by the British to keep us ‘natives’ in our place and safeguard the authority of their colonial rule. Freedom fighters that attracted the sedition laws in the pre-independence era included JC Bose, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi. Ironically the British do not have such a law in their own constitution.

The post-independence list of those booked under sedition law in India includes writers, thinkers and all manner of citizens, only a few of whom were actually declared guilty. If we aspire to be a great democracy, we must support the building blocks that go into its making, especially free speech and thinking. Attempting to jail a young girl for reasons that are not compelling does greater damage to our standing as a democracy than to her.

(The writer is a Delhi-based medical practitioner)