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End the sedition law, it silences legitimate dissent and democratic activism

The sedition case filed by Andhra Pradesh police against a rebel YSRCP parliamentarian and two Telugu news channels comes amid Supreme Court commencing proceedings in a challenge to the sedition provision. MP KR Krishnam Raju and the channels have moved SC. Raju’s charge of torture in custody will be scrutinised by a medical board and the news channels want contempt proceedings against AP government for violating SC’s order forbidding coercive actions against those revealing shortcomings in official Covid responses.

Interestingly, the petitioner challenging sedition in SC, journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem, has been jailed in Manipur on another frequently misused law, National Security Act, just after securing bail on IPC charges of promoting communal enmity, following a social media post in which he said that cow dung and cow urine are no cure for Covid. Such overreach by the state apparatus, happening at regular intervals and across the country, bears out the dangers of draconian laws. Sedition’s definition in the IPC – bringing or attempting to bring or exciting “hatred or contempt … or disaffection towards the Government” – sounds dangerously similar to bona fide criticism of government.

Despite SC narrowing sedition to require incitement of violence threatening national security or public order, police officers tend to follow the literal IPC definition. The latest challenge to sedition in SC flags this frequent subversion of SC’s guard rails, notes alternate provisions in IPC and other laws that police can wield against speech and conduct threatening public order, and also warns of the provision’s chilling effect on free speech. This last aspect is detectable in UP BJP legislator Rakesh Rathore suggesting that speaking frankly on Covid management in the state could earn him a “desh droh” case.

Muzzling dissent has grave implications. Governance suffers when shortcomings aren’t promptly exposed. This boomerangs on citizens, akin to the happenings in this pandemic. Sedition cases have seen a year-on-year increase from 30 in 2015 to 93 in 2019 but total convictions are only in single digits, recording the lowest conviction rate among offences against the state. That courts will ultimately acquit is of little comfort; the byzantine legal process is often the punishment in India. Other Commonwealth countries like United Kingdom, Uganda and Ghana have repealed sedition. It has served no purpose in maintaining the rule of law or the authority of government over the people. Sedition must go.



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



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