It's only words…

It says much about the robustness of institutional checks and balances in India that the Supreme Court has suggested a review of the sedition laws seven years into the term of the National Democratic Alliance government and when it is somewhat on the back foot owing to the mishandling of the second Covid-19 wave. Justice D Y Chandrachud made the point during a hearing involving two TV channels that broadcast the speeches of a critic of Andhra Chief Minister Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy. “A news report yesterday showed that dead bodies were being thrown in the river. I don’t know if a sedition case has been filed against the news channel yet or not,” he observed sarcastically. But the indiscriminate use of this British-era law drafted in 1860 — specifically Sections 124A of the Indian Penal Code — to curb even mild criticism against the ruling establishment has been evident for some time.

Over the past decade to 2020, the data shows that 96 per cent of the cases filed for criticising political leaders and governments were registered after 2014. So the Supreme Court could have suggested a review anytime these past seven years. The list of those arrested for sedition includes cartoonist Aseem Trivedi for lampooning Mamata Banerjee, JNU union leader Kanhaiya Kumar, many youngsters languishing in jail without habeas corpus rights after Jammu & Kashmir lost its special status in 2019, teenager Amulya Leona, who shouted “Pakistan Zindabad” at a rally against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in February last year, and 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi, who edited three lines of a protest “toolkit” during the farmers’ agitation in early 2021.

The fact is that the scope of sedition laws was clearly articulated by the Supreme Court in the landmark State of Bihar case of 1962. The apex court was categorical that criticism of the government is integral to the functioning of democracy and every criticism of the government would not be considered sedition. Criticism and sloganeering could be considered sedition only if they induced discontent and insurrection and incited the public to rebellion. Yet this spare but clear definition of sedition has been ignored with state after state invoking sedition to arrest critics at will. Human rights activist Binayak Sen was sentenced to life imprisonment under the sedition laws by a Chhattisgarh sessions court on the basis that he met a Maoist leader in jail. There is no evidence that he incited rebellion. Now as cartoonists, comedians, and poets are indiscriminately being hauled up for sedition, it is not obvious that a further clarification can alter the authoritarian proclivities of India’s political establishments.

Besides, there are a range of other laws that the state has mobilised to stifle critics — from the National Security Act to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act — which may need a relook. Justice Chandrachud’s observation was immeasurably useful in highlighting the Orwellian nature of the Indian state and underlining the basic principles of the law. But no amount of re-interpretation can alter the situation unless political leaderships acquire thicker skins and exercise restraint and judges in lower courts become courageous or knowledgeable enough to uphold the spirit of the law.


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