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The state harms its moral authority by misusing sedition to incriminate dissidents

The Delhi session’s court order granting bail to climate activist Disha Ravi ends the trauma of jail for the 22-year-old. The ten days she endured in custody on the basis of “scanty and sketchy evidence” raise questions of Delhi police. It struggled to present any evidence in court that could link Disha to the Republic Day violence or make a cogent case for saying that Disha’s actions were tantamount to inciting violence. Further, additional sessions judge Dharmender Rana’s 18-page order peppered with insightful observations also offers good reasons to junk sedition laws.

With police and prosecution harbouring no compunction presenting dissent as crime, the safeguards against sedition are failing. Judge Rana writes: “Perusal of the said ‘toolkit’ reveals that any call for any kind of violence is conspicuously absent. In my considered opinion, citizens are conscience keepers of government in any democratic nation. They cannot be put behind bars simply because they choose to disagree with state policies. The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of governments.” By invoking sedition indiscriminately, including against idealistic young activists, government harms its own moral authority.

On Disha collaborating with Greta Thunberg and Canadian pro-Khalistani activist Mo Dhaliwal, the judge noted that India’s 5,000 year civilisation was never averse to ideas from varied quarters. “In my considered opinion, the freedom of speech and expression includes the right to seek a global audience. There are no geographical barriers on communication,” said Rana, quoting the Rig Veda verse: “Let noble thoughts come to me from all directions.” Indeed, youngsters like Disha taking up activism and living this Rig Vedic ideal isn’t surprising. Cataclysmic climate change knows no national borders and will impact young people the most.

Judge Rana’s concern over further restricting Disha’s liberty “on the basis of propitious anticipations” speaks to recent cases of prolonged incarceration on tenuous grounds. Supreme Court’s observation in the bail hearing of DHFL promoters Kapil and Dheeraj Wadhwan – that agencies are satisfied with keeping people behind bars “for some days” instead of fast trial and conviction – also points to warped priorities. A reputed US digital forensics firm’s report of incriminating documents allegedly planted through malware to implicate accused persons in the Elgar Parishad case calls for speedy trial, or alternatively bail. As Justice Chandrachud observed while granting Arnab Goswami interim bail in Mumbai police’s abetment to suicide probe: “Liberty survives by the vigilance of her citizens, on the cacophony of the media and in the dusty corridors of courts alive to the rule of (and not by) law.”

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



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