Shut them up

Among the many sinister absurdities in India today, one is the frequent use of law against sedition. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code should long have been consigned to the waste bin of history, if not 71 years ago then soon after, when the implications of the freedom of expression were being worked out in the newborn democracy.

  • Published 5.09.18
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Among the many sinister absurdities in India today, one is the frequent use of law against sedition. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code should long have been consigned to the waste bin of history, if not 71 years ago then soon after, when the implications of the freedom of expression were being worked out in the newborn democracy. The fact that all governments since Independence have quietly retained a law introduced by the colonial government to suppress the freedom movement exposes the hypocrisy at the core of the democratic State. Yet the equivalent law in Britain, after passing through various changes, was finally junked in 2009. Why persist with a law that was introduced when freedom of expression was not considered a right? The Supreme Court of India, however, has been unmoving in its stand through the years, that criticism of or dissent from a government's policies cannot be sedition, unless it is intended to incite violence in order to overturn the government by illegal means. Even as recently as 2016, when Kanhaiya Kumar was booked for sedition, the Chief Justice of India mentioned the court's 1962 judgment that dismissed the sedition case against Kedar Nath Singh of Bihar, and said that the Supreme Court has remained in the same position as regards the sedition law. The apex court reiterated this consistency recently when it stated that dissent serves as the safety valve of democracy.

This context makes the Law Commission's recent consultation paper on the sedition law of extraordinary importance. It eloquently defends freedom of expression, pointing out that patriotism need not be expressed in a uniform manner. "Berating" the country or any aspect of it, criticizing one's own history, questioning policies and so on cannot be sedition. The country must be able to take "positive criticism". The commission hopes for a discussion on the section by not just lawyers and legislators but also the members of the public. Given the broad terms of Section 124A - so broad as to be applicable at the government's will - is amendment enough? Although the Union home minister has agreed that a review should take place, he has already said that it will not be repealed. How can he decide the issue before the debate has taken place? It is no wonder that it is his government that is quickest with the sedition law. Will those who ask for the law's repeal be booked for sedition too?

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