By Mohd. Naushad Khan
In India, even before Independence, the debate on use and misuse of sedition law had gained roots. The demand for scraping the entire law has been raised time and again. Very recently it was once again debated in cases related to filmmaker Aisha Sultana of Lakshadweep, senior journalist Vinod Dua, former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and Disha Ravi, etc.
In June, this year, the Supreme Court quashed the sedition case against Vinod Dua, citing Kedar Nath Singh judgment of 1962. The 1962 judgment of the Supreme Court ruled that the citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the government. Earlier, in February, 2021 the bail order in Disha Ravi case and the dismissal of a PIL against former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah facing charges under the sedition law by the Supreme Court raised a big question mark on the use rather misuse of sedition law.
The court, while granting bail to Disha Ravi, said, “Difference of opinion, disagreement, divergence, dissent, or for that matter, even disapprobation, are recognised legitimate tools to infuse objectivity in state policies. An aware and assertive citizenry, in contradistinction with an indifferent or docile citizenry, is indisputably a sign of a healthy and vibrant democracy.”
In the Farooq Abdullah case, the bench of the Supreme Court observed, “Expression of views which are different from the opinion of the government cannot be termed as seditious.”
As per NCRB data, between 2016 and 2019 there was 160 per cent increase in the filing of sedition charges with a conviction rate of just 3.3 per cent. Of the 96 people charged in 2019, only two was convicted. Every law is formulated to serve a definite purpose. The basic purpose of the law is to punish the guilty. But during the enactment of law do we ponder enough about its misuse? And, do we also frame laws, keeping in mind to punish the guilty and protect the innocent? Likewise, it is also important to find out why the Sedition Law was designed and to what extent it has served the purpose?
The conviction rate in the sedition cases can hold ground about the effectiveness, implementation, and misuse over the years. The conviction rate so far has been between 3 to 4 per cent which can fairly substantiate the claim made about its misuse. However, it would be reasonable to say that Misuse of Draconian Sedition Law undermines democratic credentials. The framers of the Constitution, in order to uphold the idea of democracy, had envisioned that India should shun the word sedition from its statute books.
According to senior Supreme Court Lawyer, Sanjay Hegde, “There are other cases which are pending in the Supreme Court where the Supreme Court can use the opportunity to relook at the Constitutionality of sedition law because even though they had upheld in 1960 subject to some very strict condition. The interpretation of Constitution has moved much since those times. So what may have been constitutional in 1960 may now currently be unconstitutional. The only problem is to do that you would require a bench of more than five judges. Constituting that bench and hearing the matter out may take some time. If the Supreme Court is so minded, it has to consider whether it should strike down the section all together.”
Very recently, Chief Justice N.V. Ramana, while questioning the continuity of the colonial-era sedition law, expressed concern over its misuse. He said, “The use of sedition is like giving a saw to the carpenter to cut a piece of wood and he uses it to cut the entire forest itself.”
His statement and several other judgements of the Supreme Court have started a rousing debate around sedition law and its widespread misuse by state authorities. The big question: Can the decades long fight against sedition law help strike down the entire law and will the government agree to do so in view of the valid arguments against the law?
Justice Iqbal Ansari, former Chief Justice of Patna High Court and presently Chairperson of Punjab State Human Rights Commission, said, “For sedition, at least there has to be some incitement or instigation for violence which is likely to disturb the public order. Sedition is not for any kind of law and order situation. Sedition is for public order where the community as a large gets involved. Merely, if one disagrees with the government, one may not become anti-national. There is a difference between the state and the government. The government will change but the state will remain constant. So my disagreement with the given government does not mean I am anti-national. When I am not anti-national then there is no question of sedition.”
Four petitions are currently in the Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of the law; the latest was filed by the PUCL on July 16. The petition, filed by advocate Prashant Bhushan on behalf of Shourie and NGO Common Cause, claimed that sedition was a colonial law which was used expressly to suppress dissent by the British in India.
As per the petition, “Sedition has come to be heavily abused with cases being filed against citizens for exercising their freedom of speech and expression on the basis of the literal definition that is available to law enforcement authorities on the statute books.”
“In such circumstances, it is submitted that this court needs to revisit the judgment of Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar, and strike down Section 124 A of Indian Penal Code, as being violative of Articles 14 (equality before the law), 19(1)(a) (freedom of speech and expression) and 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) of the Constitution of India,” the petition maintains.