News that the Supreme Court of India has instructed that cases concerning Section 124 of the Indian Penal Code (“the sedition law”) are to be in abeyance, while the Centre has stated that it will review the same law, has generated ripples of cautious optimism in all quarters of Indian society that care about human rights and fundamental freedoms. The archaic law, which was devised by the British government in the 1800s to throttle resistance from Indians and other colonised subjects, and any like it should not have a place in a democratic nation.

            Sedition is a concept that stifles dissent and resistance, framing them as negative when they are usually markers of an evolving and engaged populace. Petitions that challenge the constitutionality of Section 124 will be heard soon. Changing laws is a slow process, one that doesn’t match the urgency displayed on the ground.

This is because fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of the press and freedom of speech, are not secure in India at this time, as expert studies show. Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders), an international non-profit concerned with freedom of information, published the 2022 edition of its Press Freedom Index on May 3 (World Press Freedom Day). India ranks 150 out of 180 countries – its lowest ever position, eight positions below 2021, and a dismal rank even without those two qualifiers. The Index is based on five parameters: legal framework, economic context, political context, sociocultural context and the safety of journalists.

India’s rank in the last category is 163 out of 180 countries. The threat or indeed the experience of violence, ranging from online harassment to loss of life, to those in the media is especially acute. Which is to say: those who speak truth to power are in danger, in so many ways. The elimination of a law that was only ever intended to muzzle those who at one point demanded liberty and since then demand accountability will go some way in neutralising this environment. The sedition law can be applied on anyone; it is not only the press who are at risk.

            In April, the Constitutional Conduct Group – comprised of former retired civil servants including high-ranking bureaucrats and judges – wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to express concern on the escalation of hatred towards minorities in the country.  

            Another group of former civil servants countered this open letter with one of their own. A line in their rebuttal claims there is a “striking similarity between the phraseology of the CCG missives and utterances in the Western media or by Western agencies”.

            Here’s the thing, though: the world tends to watch as other parts of it burn, rarely getting involved. The foreign press is only picking up on what people within India are saying – bravely, and at increasing risk.

Lowest on the Press Freedom Index is North Korea, a nation that did not report coronavirus cases for over two years since the virus began spreading. It finally has – admitting that over a million people are currently affected. Officially, that is. The true extent is unofficial – and is just one example of why protest and reportage matter so much.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in May 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.