Vituperation against political opponents marks Pakistan’s public discourse

The charge of “sedition” comes in handy when the state leans on half-a-dozen sections of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and arrests its political opponents, thus equating the right of criticism under democracy to treason. It is blatant but the law is there — so why not use it to silence the right to criticism under democracy? Somebody in Shahdara, Lahore, accused Prime Minister Imran Khan’s arch-opponent Nawaz Sharif of “using criminal speeches from London on the electronic and social media” during the All Parties Conference, and filed an FIR at the local police station.

To clinch the argument, the plaintiff added that UK-based Sharif, in his speeches, had supported “the policies of India”. He was buttressed by Khan’s “information advisers” saying “Indians are laughing at us” because of Nawaz Sharif’s treasonous allegations. To add more fire, the FIR accused Sharif and his partymen of defaming Pakistan’s high courts and the armed forces “in front of the international community”. For good measure, he added the names of 40 of Nawaz Sharif’s party in his plaint, thus exposing them to the punishment of “death or lifetime imprisonment” under the High Treason (Punishment) Act, 1973.

The man who brought the charges was Badar Rasheed. After pictures of him appeared together with Punjab Governor Muhammad Sarwar, it became known that he was president of PTI’s youth wing. Prime Minister Khan “disapproved” of the “treason case” and his partymen thereafter began to dissociate the party from Rasheed. Lawyers came on TV denouncing the law itself, saying it was a dubious legacy of British Raj that Pakistan and India had retained to punish political opponents.

The British had actually made the law to beat down Indian resistance to the Raj. Famous essayist Lord Macaulay wrote up the anti-sedition law in 1834, which was to become a part of the Indian Penal Code in 1860 and the Criminal Procedure Code in 1861. In the following century, Indians began being rounded up and thrown in jail for making “seditious” speeches. India’s “freedom fighters”, today a part of the pantheon of nationalism, began to be rounded up under this law. Ironically, India and Pakistan chose to retain the law after Independence in 1947. Despite many amendments, the core of the IPC, 1860, is still in the statute books of Pakistan.

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