Silencing Dissent: Misuse of Sedition Law to Shut Up Critics
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Polity & Governance
19th Feb, 2021
The sedition law cannot be used to "quieten the disquiet under the pretence of muzzling miscreants", a court in Delhi said while granting bail to two men accused of posting fake videos on Facebook on the farmer protests.
- The increasing use of the sedition law by the authorities in recent years has led to allegations that this colonial-era provision is being invoked largely to stifle the citizens’ freedom of speech and expression, which is guaranteed by the Constitution.
- The arrest of environment activist Disha Ravi over a toolkit in support of the protesting farmers is a case in point.
- Even though the document makes no mention of violence or incitement to violent behaviour, the 22-year-old woman has been booked on the charge of sedition.
- Whether she was aware of the Khalistani leanings of the group allegedly behind the toolkit has also not been established so far.
- Amid the outrage over Disha’s arrest, a Delhi court has granted bail to a man accused of posting fake videos on Facebook on the farmers’ protests.
- The court has asserted that the sedition law cannot be invoked to ‘quieten disquiet under the pretence of muzzling the miscreants’, especially if there is no ‘exhortation or incitement to create disorder or disturb public peace or resort to violence’.
Where the Sedition Law and its validity?
- The law was originally drafted in 1837 by Thomas Macaulay, the British historian-politician, but was inexplicably omitted when the IPC was enacted in 1860.
- Section 124A was inserted in 1870 by an amendment introduced by Sir James Stephen when it felt the need for a specific section to deal with the offence.
- It was one of the many draconian laws enacted to stifle any voices of dissent at that time.
- Section 124A IPC states: “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 a fine may be added; or, with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added; or, with fine.”
- Disaffection includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.
- However, comments without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, will not constitute an offence under this section.
The number of sedition cases registered in India has risen from 35 in 2016 to 93 in 2019, the conviction rate has been going down — from 33 per cent in 2016 to merely 3 per cent in 2019.
Punishment for the offence of sedition
- Sedition is a non-bailable offence. Punishment under the Section 124A ranges from imprisonment up to three years to a life term, to which fine may be added.
- A person charged under this law is barred from a government job. They have to live without their passport and must produce themselves in the court at all times as and when required.
What are the key-points made by the Delhi Court?
- The law of sedition was a powerful tool in the hands of the state to maintain peace and order in society.
- However, it cannot be invoked to quieten the disquiet under the pretence of muzzling miscreants.
- Its indiscriminate application threatens to undermine its potency and efficacy.
SC’s views on the law
- Section 124A has been challenged in various courts in specific cases. The validity of the provision itself was upheld by a Constitution Bench in 1962, in Kedarnath Singh vs State of Bihar.
- That judgment went into the issue of whether the law on sedition is consistent with the fundamental right under Article 19 (1) (a) which guarantees each citizen’s freedom of speech and expression.
- The Supreme Court laid down that every citizen has a right to say or write about the government, by way of criticism or comment, as long as it does not “incite people to violence” against the government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder.
Kedar Nath Singh versus State of Bihar (1962)
- In Kedar Nath Singh versus State of Bihar (1962), the Supreme Court had made it clear that ‘strong words used to express disapprobation of the measures of the Government with a view to their improvement or alteration by lawful means’ did not amount to sedition.
- This ruling puts the onus on law enforcers to come up with indisputable evidence of incitement to violence or disturbance of public peace.
- Raising the bogey of sedition on flimsy pretexts will only weaken the law and enfeeble democracy.
Law Commission of India on Sedition Law
- In August 2018, the Law Commission of India published a consultation paper recommending that it is time to re-think or repeal the Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code that deals with sedition.
- In its 39th Report (1968), the Law Commission had rejected the idea of repealing the section.
- In its 42nd Report (1971), the panel wanted the scope of the section to be expanded to cover the Constitution, the legislature and the judiciary, in addition to the government to be established by law, as institutions against which 'disaffection' should not be tolerated.
- In the recent consultation paper on the sedition, the Law Commission has suggested invoking 124A to only criminalize acts committed with the intention to disrupt public order or to overthrow the Government with violence and illegal means.
Arguments in favour
- National interest: The law has its utility in combating anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements
- Stability of the State: It ensures continued existence of the government, which is essential condition of the stability of the State.
- Robust democracy: Dissent and criticism of the government are essential ingredients of robust public debate in a vibrant democracy. Right to question, criticize and change rulers is very fundamental to the idea of democracy.
- Legacy of colonial rule: It is a relic of colonial legacy and unsuited in a democracy.
- Constraint of constitutional machinery: It is a constraint on the legitimate exercise of constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and expression.
Sedition laws in other countries
- The United Kingdom deleted the seditious libel through the Coroners and Justice Act, 2009.
- In Australia, following the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) the term sedition was removed and replaced with references to 'urging violence offenses'.
The Constitution of India provides all the wings of the governance, with a responsibility to secure at least ‘freedom of expression’ of their citizens, and all sorts of intimidation to silence them must be removed. Democracy must be encouraged by the State without fearing criticism, only this would be nationalism in true sense. If the right of individual will be snatched, the whole criminal justice system would crumble down.