Caption: Protests against Sedition Law
by BA and Venkatesh Sundaram
Of late, the governments at the Centre and States are arresting several people and organisations for alleged crime of sedition. In late 2019 and early 2020, at the height of the anti-CAA protests several persons were arrested under India’s archaic sedition laws. In October 2020, in the wake of the uproar against the ghastliest gang-rape and murder of a young woman in Hathras, U.P, a journalist and a few others were booked under sedition law. In February 2021, in the wake of widespread support demonstrations and actions supporting the farmers who had been then protesting on the borders of Delhi for many months, a young woman from Bengaluru, Ms. Disha Ravi, was also booked under the sedition laws for her role in a so-called ‘toolkit conspiracy’ and kept in detention in Delhi for several days. A judge hearing the case made observations about the absurdity of the case and granted bail. Early this month (June 2021), the Supreme Court of India passed and order restraining the Andhra Pradesh police from taking coercive action against two TV news channels charged with sedition.
Indeed, the regularity and the absolute heavy-handedness with which the state and central governments have been levying charges of sedition on anyone who either opposes them or publishes materials critical of them prompted a justice of the Supreme Court to wonder aloud, while hearing a case on the management of the Covid 19 pandemic on 31st May 2021 “a news report yesterday showed that dead bodies were being thrown in the river. I don’t know if a sedition case has been filed against the news channel yet or not”. But this caustic observation by a judge of the highest court of the land did nothing to deter the Lakshadweep police from foisting a case of sedition and hate speech on the 9th of June 2021 on an actor. Her crime? ‘Spreading false news about the spread of Covid-19 during a TV debate”! Her offending words? “Lakshadweep had 0 cases of Covid-19. Now, it is reporting a daily spike of 100 cases. What the Centre has deployed is a bio-weapon”. Thus, speaking out against the policies and actions of the Central government in a TV debate has been classified as sedition and a hate crime!
Of the many ways in which there is a significant curtailment of the right to Freedom of Expression, sedition law must be the most atrocious, being a throwback to India’s colonial past. Such archaic laws which were on the books in the United Kingdom have already been repealed years ago. But in India other laws too exist on the books which can also be misused. For instance, a person tweeting requesting oxygen for his grandfather in hospital was booked under the Epidemic Act! Thus, there are a whole host of laws that require an examination and commentary.
An accepted dictionary definition of Sedition reads: noun, conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch.
Clearly, mere criticism of a government or a legislation or an application of law can barely said to be an act of sedition. Sedition was a crime during the time of the British rule in India, because any such act of calling in question actions of the Government were tied up with the arbitrary and unjust colonial rule, and a yearning for freedom from the colonial yoke. There are many cases of well-known freedom fighters who were incarcerated for their speeches or writings in newspapers. The laws enacted in those times by the colonial government whose very purpose was to suppress the Indian people and loot their natural wealth and labour are today used to suppress dissent or any questioning of policy! How can this be justified by the government which claims to be democratically elected and expected to rule in the interests of the people of India?
Of significance is the judgement of a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in 1962 in the famous Kedar Nath Singh vs. State of Bihar. In that case an extensive history of the seditions laws was enunciated, with the roots being found in the early draft of the Indian Penal Code of Macaulay from 1837-39 which contained provisions for sedition but did not find mention in the 1860 draft. However, it was incorporated in 1870 followed by an amendment in 1898, with three separate explanations. Some changes owing to the political changes found expression in 1937, 1948 and 1950.
Whereas there is no constitutional provision for sedition, the challenge in the Kedar Nath Singh case came in the form of a possible inconsistency due to the Freedom of Speech guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. The Supreme Court concluded that there is no inconsistency because the sedition laws have inbuilt mechanisms that guarantee freedom of speech and should be applied in so far as there is the possibility of disturbance of public order and of mischief. The Supreme Court has also held that the application of the law must be true to the letter and spirit of the law. It ruled that there can be “reasonable restriction” of the right to freedom of speech. Of seven important points in the ruling of this case, we mention two:
“Comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of actions of the Government, without exciting those feelings which generate the inclination to cause public disorder by acts of violence, would not be penal”
“A citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the Government, or its measures, by way of criticism or comment, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the Government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder”
So, it is clear from Kedar Nath judgement that mere comments or criticism CANNOT be a ground for invoking sedition. Only if these lead to violence against the established government can the crime of sedition be said to have taken place. These principles were upheld by the Supreme Court more recently while adjudicating on a case of sedition filed against a senior journalist by the government of Himachal Pradesh on June 3, 2021.
As numerous examples testify however, the situation in India is such that the laws are more often misused by Governments of the day, both at the State as well as at the Central levels, as a threat to muzzle criticism by journalists and ordinary people. In most of the cases of detention, the charges are so patently absurd, that it begs the question as to whether it is the State that applies the law that is true to the letter and spirit of the law. A look at recent events show that this is indeed not the case – and the sarcastic question of the Supreme Court judge a few days ago asking whether those who had reported that bodies of pandemic victims were being dumped in rivers had already been booked under sedition law underlines this.
That being the case, the time is now right to seek the scrapping of laws such as sedition, which are being used to arbitrarily and unjustly muzzle people who either criticise the state and central governments or publish information that does not paint them in the brightest of colours. People of India are fed up with the harassment at the hands law enforcement agencies. While it is the people who are demanding the upholding of the law, it often turns out that the guardians of the law are hand in glove with the violators – as in the case of the Hathras gang-rape and murder last year. Hence there must be a principled demand for the removal of such laws like sedition.