Monday, June 27, 2022

Sedition laws must stay if Contempt of Court does

You and I may think that the Sedition laws in India don’t concern us. 

They do. 

This law (1860) first came in the wake of India’s 1857 First War of Independence, downplayed as Great Indian Mutiny, and is in existence for some 162 years now.

It’s now at a breaking point since this tool has been used across all political divide with one important difference: it’s one baton which if dispensed with, would leave ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) without one of its prime enforcement agent.

On the other hand, it would greatly empower BJP’s opposition which cuts across political parties, media, academics, judiciary and social media warriors. 

Most of us would agree that chanting “Pakistan Zindabad” or celebrating “Pulwama”; or General Bipin Rawat’s plane crash deserves exemplary punishment. Those who call for the nation’s “tukde-tukde” or root for Khalistan can’t also be allowed to get away. 

And if in the name of protest against the laws made –be it Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) or the now-repealed farm laws– inflammatory speeches are made against the Union of India, and violence is incited, the State must show its iron hand. 

The trouble is, the moment you do it, the ecosystem in India, which is everything and anything but the BJP, turn it into a matter of suppression of dissent, an attack on freedom of speech a sickening blow to Human Rights and give the narrative a completely different spin. 

Those who defend Sedition on the basis of instances I have quoted above could silence the critics with a very simple answer:

If Contempt of Court invites punishment, so should the Contempt of Government too!

It’s not to say that all Sedition cases could be justified which now encompasses comments or video you post on social media. If it doesn’t take the fancy of ruling dispensation in a State, the accused is picked up, howsoever distant he may be from the scene of action. 

Majority don’t get the bail till some 80 days have passed on average and in worst cases, the jail-stay goes up to 250 days. 

A data in 2021 showed that some 156 social media users across India faced sedition charges for posting, sharing, liking, commenting, retweeting or changing their photos/status messages on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. 

In most cases, FIRs for sedition are filed in police stations by private complainants and it covers all forms of social media, television reports, audio clips or video recordings. 

(TV 18 anchor Aman Chopra is presently on the run for wondering if three temples demolished in the Alwar district of Rajasthan was a “revenge” for Jahangirpuri where demolition drive was done outside a masjid.)

Truth be told, Centre is right in asking Supreme Court to desist from making any judgement if Section 124A of the Sedition rule ought to be dispensed with. Centre’s stand is that it’s in the process of reviewing the law themselves and till they do, SC must refrain. 

The sedition law, in short, is defined as an attempt through words or visuals to bring “hatred or contempt or excites disaffection against the Government”. 

Sedition is punishable by life imprisonment with a fine or imprisonment that extends up to three years with a fine. 

To a neutral observer, a case could be argued that there has been a deluge of provocative acts and speeches against the Unity of India, be it in JNU, CAA, farmers’ protest etc, on which the ruling dispensation reacted vehemently and which was then portrayed as suppression of dissent and freedom of speech. 

On the other hand, it would also not go unnoticed that sedition laws have become a tool in the hands of Opposition States. Their high-handedness indeed intimidates the free expression of a citizen and violates the Constitution. 

For the term “disaffection” is vague in the law. It’s open to interpretation. 

Some of the punishment it entails—non-bailable offence; non-compoundable offence (no compromise allowed between the accused and the victim); arrest without a warrant—is indeed scary. 

There is enough hint that the Sedition laws in India are due for a change. In recent times, five retired Supreme Court judges—Justices Deepak Gupta, Aftab Alam, V Gopala Gowda, Rohinton Nariman and Madan Lokur—have criticized sedition laws. Media and academicians have built up a sustained pressure on its abolition.

How to strike the balance would be the key in Centre’s review—that is if the Supreme Court hearing the matter today doesn’t end up complicating it. 

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