Ranjona BanerjiIs a sedition law necessary in a modern democracy or does the state need something to protect itself from civil war? Is sedition a question of merely offending someone (or many) or does it have to include an incitement to the larger populace to overthrow a ruling government and its institutions. Is what is happening in Syria a civil war or a freedom struggle?

Jawaharlal Nehru is supposed to have said in 1951: “Now so far as I am concerned, that particular section is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons, if you like, in any body of laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better.”

Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code dates back to 1860 and says: “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 the government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”

Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi
Limits to free speech? Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, who has been arrested on sedition charges, is produced at the Metropolitan Magistrate court in Bandra (E) on Monday

Sedition therefore means that you cannot create enmity against the Indian state or spread such disaffection. It does not include criticism or “disapprobation” of acts of government.

The last time sedition was applied to anyone recently was against Dr Binayak Sen by the Chhatisgarh government for his work with “anti-national” Maoists. If sedition was absurd in Sen’s case, it is even more unlikely in the case of Trivedi. It is difficult to fathom just why the Mumbai police decided to charge the cartoonist with 124 A. Mumbai police commissioner Satyapal Singh has been quoted as saying: “…an artiste should stay within the limits of the law”.

Trivedi changed the Sarnath lions on the national emblem to wolves with bloody paws and “Satyamev Jayate” to “Bhrashtamev Jayate” (truth shall prevail to corruption shall prevail) and depicted parliament building as a western-style commode. Other cartoons have rape and sexual imagery to convey corruption.

The cartoons are not pleasant viewing and some may find them offensive. They are very trenchant criticisms of the way institutions are used and abused. It is easy to argue that Trivedi has gone too far but it is hard to see how he can be accused of inciting disaffection or hatred against the state as sedition in some sense is synonymous with treason and amounts to “offences against national security”.

As has been widely mentioned, the British used the sedition law against Indian freedom fighters so there is a tragic irony of a colonial law used to oppress a people should still be in use in a free nation. But then vast portions of the Indian penal code date back to our colonial past and all cries to get them updated have been met with a massive official indifference. Many perhaps even enjoy our 19th century laws. Britain itself recently junked its own sedition laws while we continue with this “gift”.

Once more we come down to an ability of government and its functionaries to understand the need for criticism. There seems to be no direct political hand in the charges against Trivedi but as is common knowledge, politicians with very thin skins often use their powers to attack freedom of expression.

But sections of the general public also do not like to see national symbols disrespected. Do these conservative voices have a say? Are the limits on free speech adequately defined or even understood?

Without making a martyr of Trivedi, we need to find some answers to the questions that he, his cartoons and the actions against him have raised.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona