Every now and then, we hear and read about sedition. It is a piece of legislation that appears to instill fear in many people and many lawyers caution against it. Who is this bogeyman?
Sedition is essentially any conduct that is anti-establishment. It includes speeches and writings that challenge the authority of a government. Its application is varied and often controversial and goes back to the time when British colonizers enacted a law to quell opposition to their rule. The Sedition Act became effective to quash dissent in their colonies and it was that law that infamously landed Gandhi in jail for six years. His crime? Among others, “attempt to excite disaffection towards the British government”.
In Mauritius, when a sitting minister made comments construed as créolophobic that ultimately forced his resignation, some in the press interpreted his speech as seditious. Sedition, therefore, is not only a call to rebel against the authority but can also be attempts to promote hatred among the different racial or ethnic or religious groups of people inhabiting the island.
This left-behind law from our colonial past is expressed in Section 283:
(1) Any person who, by any means specified in section 206 – (a) holds or brings into hatred or contempt, or excites disaffection towards, the Government or the administration of justice; (b) raises discontent or disaffection among the citizens of Mauritius or promotes feelings or ill will and hostility between different classes of such citizens, shall commit the offence of sedition and shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year and a fine not exceeding 20,000 rupees.
Jurists interpret laws. Other people, like me for example, see in the wording the literal meaning of the law as well as the spirit of the law. It is reasonably clear to any fair-minded reader that there is a law against willfully causing disaffection or discontent among the different classes of citizens. No need to be a lawyer to see that.
Yet, it is a truism that there is on the island a concerted policy to promote the interests of some citizens over others on the basis of proximity, or a lack thereof. Put simply, some are preferred over others, thereby causing discontent and disaffection. A simple statistical count of the personnel in the civil service would reveal an overwhelming unemployment rate of disenfranchised Créoles in the public service notwithstanding the fact that make up about 26% of the population.
Anyone wishing to challenge the government – this one and the ones before it – on its hiring policy and its violation of the spirit of the law would instead find himself accused of seditious actions for trying to reveal a truism. How sad that a call for a social audit of personnel in both the private and public sector can land someone in jail on charges of sedition, notwithstanding Section 12 (1) of the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech and sub-section 2 of Section 283:
A person shall not commit an offence under this section or section 284 where the writing or words used show that such person intended merely – (a) to express disapprobation of the measures of the Government with a view to obtain their alteration by lawful means; or (b) to express disapprobation of the measures of the administration or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection.
There is more. An argument can be made against mainstream political parties who align candidates along racial and religious lines based on the demographic make-up of the constituencies. For example, in Port-Louis Number 3, all major parties run Muslim candidates. Why? No answer is needed, we all know why.
By so doing over the years, elections have pitted communities against others, when none existed before. They have banned communal football on the basis that it promotes hatred and disaffection among the citizens of the country, it tears the social fabric, only to bring out the same communal card from their sleeves come election time as their ace to win votes. How pathetic!
There is now deep mistrust among the communities, there is resentment, and some people believe that the island is sitting on a volcano about to erupt, such is the frustration caused by willfully discriminating against minorities. Can an argument then be made that the introduction and enactment of any policy that raises discontent or disaffection among the citizens of Mauritius or promotes feelings or ill will and hostility between different classes of such citizens, shall commit the offence of sedition?