Sedition Law used to Suppress Dissent

Freedom of speech and expression is one of the six fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution of India. It is guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) , enlisted in Part III of the constitution. The constitution (first amendment) act 1951, made a provision limiting Article 19(1)(a) of constitution against abuse of ‘freedom of speech and expression.’ This amendment was made after the delivery of landmark judgement of Romesh Thappar v. The state of madras. This article recognizes one’s right to communicate their views and opinions freely through any medium eg: by means of mouth, by writing, printing, movie, art etc. This right is indispensable in a democracy. The basis of a free society is an unhampered development of words within an open forum. It is imperative to exercise this right to avoid state suppression and check the powers of the state. Each right comes along with some restrictions in order to prevent misuse.

Hence, article 19(2) came into picture. One of the restriction mentioned under article 19 (2) is sedition. Section 124A of the IPC deals with sedition. It is a non-bailable offence and and punishable with minimum imprisonment of up to three years to a maximum of life term, along with payment of fine.


Mahatma Gandhi called Section 124A “the prince among the political sections of the IPC and designed to suppress the liberty of a citizen.” This statement was made at a time when India was under British rule. Thus, this shows that section 124A of IPC is archaic and consequently redundant in the present situation. At the time it was framed it was used against political leaders seeking independence from British rule. The same rule is being applied to political rights activists and dissenters today. The language is very vague and broad and thus, open to multiple interpretations. A key prerequisite for a fair trial is that the principle of legality must be met. Obscure laws sabotage the standard of law since they leave the gateway open to particular indictment and understanding, in light of biased strategies of government authorities and the individual preferences of judges.The reading of the section shows that it is very broad, usage of words like “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government” leaves it open to interpretation as to what constitutes hatred or contempt. In the light of recent events, it has been seen how the government is oppressing activists, human right offenders and journalists for simply criticizing government acts or policies. This brings to light an important question, Whether sedition is a tool used by the government to suppress dissent under the garb of protecting the security and integrity of the nation? The government very conveniently goes on to label dissenters as “Anti-nationalists”. However, the government needs to understand there is a difference between being “Anti-national” and “Anti-government”. Dissent is important for smooth functioning of a democracy. It was held in the case of FA Picture International v. CBFC that dissent contributes to evolution of society and democracy must salute the courage of those who challenge the existing social norms through their opposing views.


Recent cases of abuse of sedition law by the government

A 19 year old Bengaluru journalism student was charged for sedition under section 124A of IPC for raising ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ slogans. How does this slogan bring hatred or contempt or excite disaffection towards the government in any way? This is clearly in violation of freedom of speech and expression and it can pose serious threats to the freedom of an individual. India was neither at war with Pakistan at that time nor did India declare Pakistan to be an enemy country. Every individual has the right to express views he/she believes in.

It was held in the case of Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar that an act must incite violence for it to be classified as sedition. The court had ruled that even if strong language may be used against the government administration, but if it does not cause public disorder, it would not be penalised. Clearly, these guidelines are being abused and sedition law is being used to muzzle dissent. The NCRB’s Crime in India report 2016 shows that out of 34 cases of sedition reported that year, there was only one conviction, two acquittals, while 31 cases are still pending trial. This shows how the government is misusing the law in furtherance of its own interests. In January, a sedition case was filed against the teacher and mother of a student for allegedly criticizing Prime Minister Modi. In Karnataka’s Bidar district a play was organized by the school management for spreading awareness about the Citizenship Amendment Act. The police said that this act criticized the CAA and therefore seditious in nature. Despite supreme court’s repeated warnings against the misuse of sedition law, there has been no change.


It still continues to be used loosely in furtherance of the government’s interest. The court issued a statement that this play was in no way seditious or ‘anti-national’. The court once again held that the ingredients of section 124A i.e. causing public disorder was lacking. Merely using strong language and criticizing the government cannot be construed as sedition. In October 2016, a Facebook user was booked for sedition for posting derogatory comments against the Haryana government. Another man was arrested for posting ‘I support Pakistan’ on Facebook along with a flag of Pakistan. However, these posts do not instigate hatred or disaffection towards the Indian government in any way. The objective behind Section 124A is to punish those who act with contempt towards the government. These protests are generally made to satisfy a particular group who often label them as ‘anti-nationals.’ In the case of Bilal Ahmed v. State of Andhra Pradesh it was held that an individual cannot be booked under Section124A for criticizing the prime minister or his/her actions. Only if the comments are directed towards the central government or state government would constitute sedition. It is crucial to understand that the persons who are engaged in carrying on the government machinery are different from ‘government established by law’. Clarification 2 to Section 124A explains that remarks which oppose government measures/activities and authoritative measures (without instigating or attempting to instigate disdain/hatred/offense towards the government) don't comprise rebellion.


International Stance on Sedition

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that in case a law imposes limitations on the right of freedom of speech and expression then there must be a corresponding justification to that specific law. Clearly, in the context of India, cases of sedition are being filed against activists and journalists to vilify dissent without any valid justification. Countries like New Zealand, United Kingdom and US. The New Zealand commission while abolishing the sedition law stated that holding dissenting views cannot be criminal simply because they are in opposition to the government authority.[v] UK abolished the offence of sedition through section 73 of the coroners and justice act in 2019. UN Human Rights Committee and the European court of human rights laid down a three-part test for any restriction on freedom of speech to qualify as valid restriction:

  • Be provided be law

  • Be for the purpose of safeguarding legitimate public interest and

  • Be necessary to secure the interest

Article 19 of Universal Declaration of human rights also provides that restriction can be imposed only if it interferes or abuses someone’s rights and against public order and morality. However, the present sedition law in India does not incorporate any of the guidelines laid down by international instruments.



Conclusion

In the case of Aravindan v. Province of Kerala Justice Menon compactly clarified the requirement for a decent way to deal with the Section. He believed, '. A Government which stays silent when open harmony is jeopardized from whichever quarter is truly abandoning its obligations. In any case, it is likewise important to remember that no thoughts could be stifled by detaining the individuals who hold them. Political advocacy that scrutinized Government or put forth unconventional thoughts, if strongly introduced, would make some likelihood that it would prompt undesired activity. In that case, that would be be the consequence of stifling such political promotion.

Such concealment of thoughts may simply redirect popular political opinion from genuine social issues which should be paid attention to, cutting off opportunities for sharing ideas is probably going to heighten aggression, drive opposition underground, and forestall the arrangement of issues by reason as opposed to forcibly. Those who express dissent are regularly propelled by fears, complaints or different conditions which the general public ought to comprehend and face. Even more in a nation like India where the hole between the rich and the poor is so wide and where a huge level of the populace live beneath the poverty line.

While repealing the sedition law may not be the solution, the present law should definitely be re-examined. The government and law enforcement agencies must review this sedition law and must issue guidelines keeping the international obligations and precedents in mind. Thus, India should work on narrowing down the laws so that it has minimum effect on freedom of speech and expression and in line with international laws.

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