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Cases filed frequently to muzzle dissent make a strong case for a long overdue scrap

Supreme Court’s rejection of a PIL pleading for invoking sedition against veteran Kashmiri politician Farooq Abdullah, for his opposition to Article 370 nullification, calls for rethink by the top court on sedition’s constitutionality. Against SC’s 1962 Kedar Nath Singh judgment that retained sedition in IPC by strictly mandating that police proceed only when there is incitement of violence, legitimate instances of dissent are getting criminalised. In recent weeks, courts at various levels heard bail pleas on sedition cases filed by police in multiple states, including one by a 22-year-old climate activist.

“The expression of a view which is a dissent from a decision taken by the Central Government itself cannot be said to be seditious. There is nothing in the statement which we find so offensive as to… initiate proceedings,” said SC, while fining the petitioners Rs 50,000 for frivolous litigation.  But the wastage of judicial time, and more importantly at a personal and political level, the harassment of individuals and silencing of dissent must prompt SC to reexamine the infirmity of sedition in light of frequent undermining of the fundamental right to dissent.

With tolerance for dissent in short supply, a law leaving a wide berth for misinterpretation and abuse becomes problematic. The quashing of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which was similarly wielded against dissidents and suffered from the same propensity to incriminate free speech, can guide SC again if it chooses to strike down the sedition provision. Such moves would also reverse the trend of India’s soft power taking a big hit, latest evidence coming from the ‘Freedom in the World 2021’ report where India has fallen from “Free” to “Partly Free” status. A similar downgrade had happened in this Freedom House report during the Emergency too.

The report cites “increased pressure on human rights organisations, rising intimidation of academics and journalists, and a spate of bigoted attacks, including lynchings, aimed at Muslims” since 2014 as reasons for India’s decline. While India’s score of 34/40 in political rights tallied with many “free” countries, a dismal 33/60 score in civil liberties dragged it down to the level of “partly free” countries with failing democracies. It is time the Supreme Court treated patently unjustified sedition cases as contempt of its judgments narrowing the applicability of sedition. The chilling effect from frequent political witch hunts is contributing to India’s international embarrassment too.

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This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.



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