“No government should be without critics. If its intentions are good then it has nothing to fear from criticism.”
— Thomas Jefferson
In India, the indiscriminate use of ‘Sedition’ as a ground for arresting dissenters has sparked debates around its legality and rightful application. The provision regarding Sedition is contained in the Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. According to it, “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 fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”
There is a grave misperception regarding what actions or statements amount to an offense under the Sedition laws. There is a very thin line as to what can or cannot be considered as an offence. For instance, when someone disapproves of the failure of the Government in taking measures on a particular issue without arousing hatred, contempt or dissatisfaction, he naturally wouldn’t be liable under the sedition laws.
Recently, the provision on sedition had generated controversy when the Supreme Court of India had reiterated that rejecting government policies is not sedition.
The Indian court within a span of 10 days, passed two verdicts, maintaining that if someone criticizes the government, he or she cannot be charged under the sedition law. On 23rd February, the Delhi High court passed a ruling, releasing Disha Ravi, an activist, and eliminating sedition charges against her. Likewise, on 3rd March, the Apex Court quashed a PIL which was filed against the ex-CM of J&K, Mr Farooq Abdullah for sedition.
As far as Disha Ravi’s case is concerned, the Delhi High court ordered that sedition charges cannot be framed to only satisfy the ego of the government. It unequivocally stated that going against a state’s policy or criticizing it cannot lead to sedition.
In the Farooq Abdullah case, the Apex Court maintained that if someone doesn’t agree with the government’s stand on any matter, it’s fine. It cannot be termed as ‘sedition’.
A hefty penalty of fifty thousand rupees only was also imposed on the petitioner for baseless claims by the bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Hemant Gupta.
As far as Sedition laws are concerned, it has been a controversial matter for numerous years. The governments have been rebuked time and again by the courts for its misuse, for labelling any dissent as ‘deshdroh’ and defaming any dissenter as ‘anti-national’. Ironically, these dissenters can still be loyal to the Nation while disagreeing with the Government. In other words, ‘rajdroh’ or anti-government cannot be dubbed as sedition.
Does Sedition Law curb Free Speech?
The Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression which is mentioned under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India is a Fundamental Right, gives it a precedence over the Sedition law. The court in the case of Kedarnath v. The State of Bihar stated that Section 124 of the Indian Penal Code,1860 can only be enforced against anyone when his or her words or actions lead to widespread violence. India’s sedition laws date back to the colonial era (or, British Raj) when these laws were used to suppress the Wahabi movements and rebellions against the British government.
Recently, retd. Justice Deepak Gupta, while addressing a webinar on “ The Right to Dissent” stated, “The right to dissent is a hallmark of democracy. Whenever a party comes into power, it is not immune to criticism and the “right to dissenting opinion allows this Criticism”. It can be affirmed that the right of objection allows such criticism. There can be no progress if we defeat dissenting opinions and turn a blind eye to fair criticisms. Although the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression provided by the Constitution of India is a Fundamental right, it is not absolute. It is subjected to reasonable restrictions. Therefore, striking a balance between Freedom of Speech and Sedition is quite imperative.
To quote Blaise Pascal: “It is far more ignominious to die by justice than by an unjust sedition.”
Globalization and internationalism has made us realise that it’s high time that one reflect on and revise the applicability of this law, especially from the perspectives of democratic values and sovereignty. Opinion of the masses on government policies and legislations should deserve due consideration and importance because ultimately, the government is an institution that works to address people’s aspirations. Declaring any citizen as “anti-National” and giving an upper hand to the police in arbitrarily arresting the said person simply restricts their ‘Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression’ guaranteed in the Constitution. Above all, an individual’s autonomy and liberty should be respected in order to flourish as the world’s largest democratic country.
1962 SCR Supl. (2) 769