The Law Commission of India’s 297threport ‘Usage of the Law of Sedition’, would come as a great disappointment to civil and human rights’ activists. A year after the Supreme Court ordered a halt on all proceedings and registering of fresh cases under the sedition law, the report has strongly recommended retaining the sedition offence, albeit with some substantive and procedural safeguards. While acknowledging the grave misuse of the law, both by colonial and post-colonial governments, the report conveniently attributes the misuse to police ‘complicity’ and ‘whimsical’ interpretations. There is no mention whatsoever of political complicity in misusing the law for the ruling party’s gains and suppressing the Opposition.
The question that arises is whether India needs a sedition law. This can be strongly questioned for three reasons: One, the law of sedition was framed by the Britishers to suppress the rebellious Indians, who were engaged in activities which were against the decorum of the colonial rule and is hence out of place in a democratic republic; Two, the law of sedition is more likely to be a law for which the political parties crave for their own benefits as the ruling party has been found to misuse the power against anyone questioning its policies and criticising the government’s functioning; and three, the existing provisions of Indian Penal Code (IPC) are sufficient to address all threats to violence and public order.
It may be stated that the law on sedition was deliberately designed to be vague and ambiguous, serving the agenda of preserving an undemocratic State — the colonial government. Its purpose was to suppress dissent and criticism. Recall, the law was used against J. C. Bose for criticising the Age of Consent Bill, Bal Gangadhar Tilak for writing articles in newspapers and Kamal Krishna Sircar for condemning a law declaring labour organisation illegal.
The sedition law is a contentious law that civil liberties activists, human rights lawyers and journalists have questioned. Many have argued that India’s sedition law is long past its expiry date. The global movement has been overwhelmingly anti-sedition with different countries either easing the law or simply getting rid of it. Many democratic countries, including the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, Canada, Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda, have held sedition law as undemocratic, undesirable and unnecessary.
There has been an intense debate about its present-day relevance in view of the government’s misuse to silence criticism of opponents. As is well known, sedition cases have been filed against citizens for raising slogans, for participating in protest meetings, for reporting on the second wave of Covid-19, covering rape cases, and supporting the demands of protesters among others. However, while the Commission makes a token reference to the fact of free speech being the hallmark of democracy, it goes on to present sedition as a reasonable restriction to free speech, considering what it calls “stark ground realities”.
What these ground realities are has not been explained though the report referred to Maoist extremism, ethnic conflicts, terrorism etc. Social analysts would attribute these as examples of social and economic exploitation of the poor and the lower castes, the stagnant economy of the countryside and spectre of squalor and poverty of a section of the population. This is just an expression of protest, turning violent, just to air the grievances that may have continued for long. Even the recent protests in Manipur leading to over 100 deaths and displacement of over 45,000 people is an expression of economic exploitation of the tribals as also their deprivation but has nothing to do with sedition.
The Commission suggested implementation of procedural guidelines and preliminary inquiry before registering an FIR. While this may, to a limited extent, reduce arbitrariness and police power, the track record of our executive bodies in ensuring impartiality and transparency makes it evident that this recommendation is simply an empty gesture.
The report also proposes amending the provision to include the phrase “with a tendency to incite violence or cause public disorder” aligning with the apex court’s decision in Kedar Nath Singh vs. State of Bihar (1962) where it clarified that only speech that has the tendency to incite violence or create public disorder would be criminalised. But this appears quite vague, and the State would be free to use it to its advantage.
There can be no justification in continuing with this colonial law as this clearly impinges on the right to protest and air grievances freely in a democratic society like ours. Only an authoritarian government would like to continue with such a law as is being widely perceived in India. The situation in the country is increasingly witness to the fact that the right to dissent is being eroded or even being taken away by the ruling dispensation. And in this regard, the minorities, specially the Muslims have been the worst affected victims.
Though a section of experts may vouch for continuation of the law, there is need for more clarity of when this law could be imposed on the citizens. Mere protest and movements against government policies and decisions cannot be deemed to be seditious. However, this was the case during the farmers’ movement for which Twitter was threatened to shut down operations in India. Even a few days back, the Editors Guild of India urged political parties not the harass or intimidate journalists and media houses for doing their job honestly.
There can be no denying that there has been a staggering increase in charges by around 160 percent between 2016 and 2019, as per theNational Crime Records Bureau(NCRB) statistics. Surprisingly, the conviction rate remained only at 3 percent. It is evident that the Supreme Court recognised the misuse of the law, which prompted it last year to impose a ban on all trials, appeals, and proceedings related to charges framed under Section 124(A), keeping these in abeyance.It had granted the Centre time to re-examine the law and reconsider its application.
The Law panel now has recommended the inclusion of the word “tendency” in the sedition law. The panel asserts that the phrase “tendency to incite violence or cause public disorder” is defined as a “mere inclination to incite violence or cause public disorder,” rather than requiring proof of actual violence or an imminent threat of violence. If this interpretation implies that a mere inclination to incite violence and support public disorder is sufficient to invoke this draconian provision, even when it is not desired, it renders the provision vague.
Social transformation cannot become a reality if dissent is not tolerated. One may recall that Mahatma Gandhi famously remarked that sedition was intended to suppress the freedom of citizens. Already surveys have pointed out that civil protest has been on the wane due to fear of the authorities taking drastic action against them. Even the middle class, who has been the beneficiaries of the pro-rich reforms initiated by the government, has kept itself away from joining protest movements. Even in educational institutions, the autonomy has been taken away and the government’s perverted actions are being imposed.
There must be a change and even though the use of the sedition law has been put on hold, law enforcing agencies need to work judiciously, keeping the interests of the people in mind. Though this is easier said than implemented, all eyes would be on the final word of the country’s apex court. Or what the temple of democracy, Parliament, will do. —INFA