“Off with her head, arguments later”, ordered the Queen in Alice in Wonderland. A term synonymous in modern India, which has come a long way from ‘Urban Naxals, Hate crimes and Love Jihad’ to a conflict of interests masquerading as a contest of principles, albeit Sedition law.
The Law Commission has recommended retaining contentious Section l24A of IPC dealing with sedition as the continued existence of Government established by law is an essential condition for the security and stability of the State. In this context, repealing the 153 year-old colonial legacy, could have adverse ramifications for the country’s security and integrity. Hence it becomes imperative to ensure that all subversive activities are nipped in their incipiency,” justifying its retention.
“Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or signs, or visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law, with a tendency to incite violence or cause public disorder shall be punished.”
Further, it increased sentence under the law to life imprisonment or up to seven years or fine from up to three years or fine. Underscoring, its utility in combating anti-national and secessionist elements, “radicalization” against India, activities of Maoists and militancy in North east and J&K as it seeks to protect the elected Government from attempts to overthrow it through violent and illegal means.
It suggested Government bring in model guidelines. An FIR on sedition should be filed only after a preliminary inquiry by a police Inspector within 7 days and only thereafter, permission shall be granted. Even as it acknowledged misuse by politicians, it put the onus on “police’s overzeal” to please their political mai-baaps.
Adding, “Repealing Section 124A of IPC on the mere basis that certain countries including UK and Pakistan have done so is essentially turning a blind eye to the glaring ground realities existing in India.”
Government said the Commission’s recommendations were persuasive and not binding and an “informed and reasoned decision would be taken after consultation with all stakeholders, inspired by Prime Minister Modi’s “belief” that the nation should work harder to shed “colonial baggage” including outdated laws.
Pertinently, the Supreme Court May last had hit pause and put the law in abeyance ruling it was not in sync with the social milieu. “We hope and expect Centre and State Governments will refrain from registering any FIR, continuing investigation, or taking coercive steps under Section 124A when it is under reconsideration while granting time to the Centre to take “appropriate steps” to review the provision.
Plainly, the Court was doing a balancing act even as it “is cognisant of security interests and integrity of the State on one hand and citizens civil liberties on the other, there is a requirement to balance both sets of considerations, which is a difficult exercise,” it observed.
Undeniably, the Commissions finding’s go against the tenor of the Court order. In the past few years the Court has dealt with multiple cases on sedition. In 2021, it stayed the arrest of six persons including MP Shashi Tharoor and journalists who had FIRs registered against them for sedition. In May the Court granted bail to an MP who had been arrested under the law.
Aghast politicians, activists and academics claim India is becoming the theatre of absurd. The Section has been systematically misused. It has been used to investigate and arrest persons even when the link to violence was tenuous. The State is using sedition as an iron hand to curb free speech in an overreaction to people’s opinion.
The law causes a “chilling effect” on free speech and is an unreasonable restriction on freedom of expression, a Fundamental Right. It is contrary to the ethos and foundations of our Republic. The Commission has given the law status of the Government as if it is the State. The Government is installed through the people’s will, it does not represent the State but works for the State.
Thus the sedition provision is conceptually flawed. It is just to shut up those who agitate against Government. After 2014, there have been more than about 13,000 cases with the accused already in jail. Out of these only in 329 cases there has been conviction. In 2019 alone, 93 new cases were filed across the country.
Countered the Government, “vested interest groups are trying to enforce their agenda on various ideas and developments and derail them. We want to save the country from their ideology and protect India’s nationalism from multiple attacks.
Either way, India is in the grip of self-styled chauvinism wherein critics, intellectuals or hoi polloi are soft targets with imprudent reactions taking over debates and calibrated decisions. Life is lived in the slim strip called the official and every tweet, satire or defiance treated as a monster. Big deal if this makes public discourse impoverished and toothless.
As blinkered, dogma-ridden debates rage on it marks a dangerous political trend of intolerance vis-à-vis freedom of expression and personal choices. If this trend goes unchecked society will get dangerously dogmatic and fragmented. Think. As India marches ahead enroute to being Atmanirbhar our leaders need to realize in a mammoth one billion plus country there would be a billion views and one cannot curtail people’s fundamental rights. At the same time we need to desist from acerbic and speeches which spew hatred and narrow-mindedness.
What next? So do we pander to rabble rousers or muzzle their voices? Notably, no licence should be given to anyone to spread hatred or the perilous implications of their insidious out-pourings. They need to realise a nation is primarily a fusion of minds and hearts and secondarily a geographical entity.
Alongside, our netas need to realize criticism is a sign of a thriving and robust democracy. Take a lesson from leaders world-wide who are more tolerant about what’s written or depicted about them. Two classic examples of political freedom are former US President Trump who continues to be mercilessly satirized globally and ex-Italian millionaire-playboy-PM Berlusconi. In UK and France people take a lot of liberties vis-à-vis their rulers.
Clearly, when taking a final call Government and Court should keep in mind that procedural safeguards almost never work in a country where the prosecutorial proclivity to arrest overrides all else. An example: Police used Section 66A of the IT Act long after it was scrapped). Moreover, conviction rates languish in single digit underlining the scant evidence that underpins such charges.
Additionally, the Commission’s suggestions clash with the Apex Court’s thrust on liberty and individual freedoms as guaranteed by Article 19. Besides, Section 124A, fails to clearly cull out the meaning of these actions, resulting in its vague interpretation. Certainly, the State must be able to defend itself under internal and external aggression but such action should never come at the cost of Constitutional rights.
At some point we need to realize that India was conceived as a democratic rather than majoritarian country wherein all citizens have certain basic rights. When it comes to democracy, liberty of thought and expression is a cardinal value that is of paramount significance under our Constitutional scheme. Our democracy will not sustain if we can’t guarantee freedom of speech and expression. What gives? —– INFA,