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Extra Bytes: Criticism is not sedition

Criticism is not sedition

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Context: (Criticism is not sedition)

  • The recent order of a Bihar court directing the filing of an FIR against 49 eminent persons who signed an open letter to the PM expressing concerns over mob lynching is shocking, disappointing, and completely disregards the true meaning of the law.
  • The FIR was lodged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), including sedition, public nuisance, hurting religious feelings, and insulting with intent to provoke breach of peace.
  • But many would agree that the writers of the letter were doing precisely what every citizen ought to do in a democracy — raise questions, debate, disagree, and challenge the powers that be on issues that face the nation.
Criticism is not sedition
Criticism is not sedition

History of the sedition law:

  • Sedition laws were enacted in 17th century England, when lawmakers believed that only good opinions of the government should survive, as bad opinions were detrimental to the government and monarchy.
  • This sentiment (and law) was borrowed and inserted into the IPC in 1870.
  • The law was first used to prosecute Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1897. That case led to Section 124A of the IPC (which deals with sedition) being amended, to add the words “hatred” and “contempt” to “disaffection”, which was defined to include disloyalty and feelings of enmity.
  • In 1908, upon conviction for sedition in another case, and imprisonment, Tilak reportedly said, “The government has converted the entire nation into a prison and we are all prisoners”.
  • Gandhi, too, was later tried for sedition for his articles in Young India, and famously pleaded guilty.
  • Twice in the Constituent Assembly, some tried to include sedition as a ground for restricting free speech. But this was vehemently (and successfully) opposed for fear that it would be used to crush political dissent.
  • The Supreme Court highlighted these debates in 1950 in its decisions in Brij Bhushan v the State of Delhi and Romesh Thappar v. the State of Madras.
  • These decisions prompted the First Constitution Amendment, where Article 19(2) was rewritten to replace “undermining the security of the State” with “in the interest of public order”.
  • Jawaharlal Nehru clarified that the related penal provision of Section 124A was “highly objectionable and obnoxious and the sooner we get rid of it the better”.
  • In 1962, the Supreme Court decided on the constitutionality of Section 124A in Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar. It upheld the constitutionality of sedition, but limited its application to “acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder, or disturbance of law and order, or incitement to violence”.
  • It distinguished these from “very strong speech” or the use of “vigorous words” strongly critical for the government.
  • In 1995, the Supreme Court, in Balwant Singh v State of Punjab, acquitted persons from charges of sedition for shouting slogans such as “Khalistan Zindabaad” and “Raj Karega Khalsa” outside a cinema after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
  • Instead of looking at the “tendency” of the words to cause public disorder, the Court held that mere sloganeering which evoked no public response did not amount to sedition, for which a more overt act was required; the accused did not intend to “incite people to create disorder” and no “law and order problem” actually occurred.
  • The broad scope of Section 124A means that the state can use it to chase those who challenge its power, and the mere pressing of sedition charges ends up acting as a deterrent against any voice of dissent or criticism.
  • The soul of Gandhi’s philosophy lay in the right to dissent, which is today being systematically destroyed.

Challenging the law: (Criticism is not sedition)

  • Even the threat of sedition leads to a sort of unauthorized self-censorship, for it produces a chilling effect on free speech.
  • This misuse must be stopped by removing the power source itself.
  • The law must go, as has happened in the U.K. already. No government will give up this power easily, and logically, one would turn to the courts for help.
  • We must protect our right to dissent as fiercely as we protect our right to live. If we fail to do so, our existence as a proudly democratic nation is at risk.

Right to life & personal liberty: Article 21 applies to natural persons.

  • “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law.”
  • It is a fundamental right given to every person, citizen or alien. Thus, even a foreigner can claim this right. It, however, does not entitle a foreigner the right to reside and settle in India, as mentioned in Article 19 (1) (e)
  • This right has been held to be the heart of the Constitution, the most organic and progressive provision in our living constitution, the foundation of our laws.

Right to dissent: not explicitly mentioned in the constitution

  • Dissent means “a strong difference of opinion on a particular subject, especially about an official suggestion or plan or a popular belief”.Right to Dissent is an important addition of :
    • The constitution under Article 19(1)(a) provides for freedom of speech and expression and also under Article 19(2) provides for reasonable restrictions on such freedom.
  • This particular right is also subject to reasonable restrictions in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, as well as public order.
  • The right to dissent is helpful in expressing one’s view, enable practitioners and citizens to claim their rights and participate more effectively in the project of democracy.
  • Dissent is the safety valve of democracy
  • Right to peaceful protest is the fundamental right guaranteed under the constitution.
  • legitimate dissent is a distinguishable feature of any democracy.

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