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Are we a nation prone to sedition? The draconian law’s increasing application makes it seem so

A mere wisp of a girl, 21 going on 22, is the latest Indian national to be hauled up for sedition. Disha Ravi is an enthusiastic student activist of Mount Carmel College in Bengaluru. She worries about the future of our planet and all the living things on its surface. Many young people in countries across the world are worried about the environment. But with development as its one and only guiding light, our leaders are bent on removing all obstacles in its way. And so it was that Disha Ravi was arrested for sedition.

She has been bracketed with one of the nation’s founding fathers, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who was tried for sedition in 1908 by then British rulers. Disha is thus in august company. The British revoked the law on sedition in their own country in 2010. Are the people in our country deemed to be inherently treacherous, so we arm our police with powers to arrest without a warrant which the British sarkar had not contemplated?

So also, we instruct our police to use the power freely to entrap all naysayers and dissenters who refuse to endorse every government decision. The crime of sedition is enunciated in Section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code, with three Explanations that follow the text. The Supreme Court, when confronted with adjudicating on the constitutionality of this IPC provision which undermines the guarantee of free speech in Sections 19(1) and 19(2) of the Constitution, took into account the purport of these three Explanations, and held in its Kedar Nath judgment of 1962 that unless a person’s speech or writing goes beyond mere criticism of a party in power, it does not constitute sedition.

It is not enough to attack the party in power or the government of the day. The attack must target the state per se and incite the people to whom the speech or writing is addressed to topple the state through violence. Unfortunately, Kedar Nath did not strike down Section 124A itself, as many feel it should have done to bury the entire free speech vs sedition controversy for all time!

The advanced democracies and many other countries of the world have chosen free speech over sedition or treason, as a guiding principle of good governance. In India, however, the provision continues to exist. What is more disturbing, however, is its use in the time of ‘acche din’ to silence any government critic disregarding completely and, may I say, brazenly, the principle laid down by the SC in the Kedar Nath judgment.

If the SC takes on the duty of reminding the government of its responsibility to adhere to the law and its interpretation by the court, it may stop this deluge of sedition cases wrongly registered against activists. National Crimes Records Bureau statistics show that the number of sedition cases has steadily risen every year since 2016, and in an overwhelming number of cases no violence was intended or disclosed, leading to acquittal of the accused. But the legal process itself was turned into an instrument of punishment, as victims of the regime’s enthusiasm spent disproportionate time in jail before release.

In an article published last month Colin Gonsalves, well-known human rights lawyer, has advocated punitive fines on police officers guilty of overstepping their powers and disregarding court mandates, if they apply 124A or UAPA when these are not called for. Alternatively, and perhaps more conveniently, courts should haul up the officers for contempt when they defy the SC’s own ruling in Kedar Nath. That will deter them from trying to suck up to their political masters.

Disha Ravi possesses the exuberance of youth, which attracted the charge of sedition. Even former SC judges are amazed. They smelt no whiff of sedition in her ‘toolkit’ and nothing cussed in the work she is doing.

But the Delhi police thinks otherwise. Its obvious intention is to link the Republic Day violence in Delhi with the toolkit and the foreign Sikh lobby. This is ridiculous. Surely, Disha Ravi cannot be suspected of dancing with Khalistanis! As one who has fought Khalistani terrorism in Punjab myself, I would summarily reject such an accusation.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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