SEDITION LAW: A THREAT TO RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND EXPRESSION

Author: Nandini Srivastava

Manipal University, Jaipur




INTRODUCTION

The Constitution of India guarantees to its citizens the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19(1)(a). This right within its ambit also includes the right to press, right to receive information and right to disseminate the same. Thus, it can be concluded that this provision of law entitles to every individual the liberty to speak his or her mind. This law can be considered as the backbone of the Indian democracy thereby, allowing the people of our country to be able to question the government and seek answers from them on matters which have cultural, social, economic and political significance. This provision of law helps people monitor the functioning of the three organs of the government - legislature, executive and judiciary. The relevance of free speech and expression has also been advocated by many philosophers as well. John Stuart Mill stated that 'every individual has complete sovereignty over his body and mind. No one can be compelled to do any act against his wishes unless it is done to prevent harm to others.' He emphasised on the importance of free speech and free thought. He articulated in his theory that individualism is very imperative for the growth and development of both individual and the country. Individualism ensures that individual attains in his life “the highest and most harmonious development of his powers” and "not just the ability to work as the puppet of the society." When every person embraces his individualism then he also makes the society aware about the new and ‘maybe’ better practises. Thus, each voice holds a very significant value that should be silenced for the betterment of one and all. If a voice is silenced then it can be very well inferred that it holds complete or partial truth which is being suppressed for one's' own personal benefit. [1]


LEGAL FRAMEWORK AND CASE LAWS

In compliance with John Stuart Mill’s theory the Indian Constitution also guarantees certain restrictions on this right in order to prevent harm to others and to the society as a whole. Article 19(2) states that on grounds of incitement of offence, contempt of court, public order, friendly relations with other foreign states, peace, security of the nation, defamation, integrity as well as sovereignty and moral as well as decency this right can be restricted. The same has been supported by sedition law under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. This law was enacted to punish the Indian freedom fighters that raised their voice against the British government. Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak among other people were also arrested under this law. Mahatma Gandhi in his speech said “Section 124A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.” [2] Section 124A states “Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation or otherwise, brings into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in [India] shall be punished with [imprisonment of life], to which fine may be added or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added or with fine.” This law enunciates that any person by any means if encouraged people to rebel against the government or stir up feelings of enmity and disloyalty in them against the government will be held guilty and will be awarded punishment under this legal framework. Any comments made by any person by any means to express his dissatisfaction regarding the measures adopted by the government or any action by them with a view to get the government to alter the measures or actions by lawful means is not an offence under this section if it is done without brining “into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in [India]”. The courts of India have from time to time, through various case laws have given their view on this sedition law. Some of the cases have changed the way this law is looked upon in our country. One such case is The Queen- Empress v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak[3]. It is the most famous case in the history of sedition law. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was charged under this law on two occasions. First, in 1897 when through his speech he incited the crowd to act against the colonial government. This led to violent behaviour and resulted in the death of two British officers. For this, he was convicted and given imprisonment of two years. Second, in 1909 he was found guilty of writing seditious content in his newspaper Kesari. Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar[4]This was the first sedition case to be tried in the court of independent India. In this case the constitutionality of the sedition was challenged to which the Supreme Court pronounced it to be constitutional and differentiated between a comment on the measures adopted and acts done by the government without inciting public disorder and an act done to incite public disorder or violence. In 2007 Dr. Binayak Sen v. State of Chhattisgarh [5]is a very imperative case on this topic as well. He was accused of helping Naxalite by sending them vital information with the help of a Maoist prisoner through notes. Dr. Sen stated in the Wall Street Journal that he was under constant surveillance of the prison guard hence the same is not possible. He also mentioned that he is just being charged because he raised his voice against the killing done by a group called Salwa Judum, which is supported by the state government. The state always advocates that the group is responsible to curb the rebellions by the insurgents but its real job of the group is to clear village land to quarry iron ore, bauxite and diamonds underneath. This case gained a lot of popularity across the national as well as international border. U.S. based Global Health Council awarded Dr. Sen Jonathan Mann Award 2008 for global health and Human Rights. Later that year, in the month of May 22 Nobel laureates wrote a letter to the Indian government requesting them to release Dr. Sen so that he could receive the award in person. In the letter, the Indian internal security laws were also criticized as it did not confirm to the international human rights standard. Later, the Supreme Court held that sedition does not apply in this case. Another well - known case is Sanskar Marathe v. State of Maharashtra.[6] In this case controversial political cartoonist and activist, Aseem Trivedi was charged under sedition for displaying “insulting and derogatory” sketches which depicted Parliament and the National Emblem of the country disrespectfully. In his sketch the commode symbolised Parliament and lions were replaced by wolves in the emblem. Many believed this case was falsely fabricated to suppress his voice against the corrupt practises of the government. This case posed a serious question on the exercise of Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression. Later, the police dropped sedition charges on the legal opinion of the State Advocate General but he was still accused under the Prevention of Insult to National Honour Act, 1971 and Section 66(A) of the Information Technology Act, 2000. The petition was presented before the constitutional bench of Justice Mohit Shah and Justice N M Jamdar who clarified that each case of sedition is different and needs to be individually decided. An act can only be an offence of sedition if it is done with the intention to cause public disharmony and violence. The police before charging any person under this law need to submit a legal opinion along with reason in writing. In the case of Gurajtinder Pal Singh v. State of Punjab[7] The High Court stated that no person can be held guilty of sedition only because it responds to anti- Indian and pro- Khalistan slogans. In the case of Balwant Singh v. State of Punjab[8], the Supreme Court acquitted those people who were accused of shouting “Khalistan Zindabad” outside a cinema hall after Indira Gandhi’s assassination on the ground that mere shouting of slogan which evoked no response from public does not amount to sedition.


MISUSE OF SEDITION LAWS

For years, people have debated whether sedition law should be scrapped down or not. Many are of the opinion that this law needs to be tossed out because it is widely used by the government for their own benefits. People who outline an opinion and make inquires are now considered a threat to national security. Many marginalised and minority groups who try to raise their voice against any injustice are posed as anti – nationals. Many who are considered a threat by those who are in power are charged under this law. Some of the cases aforementioned to some extent highlight the same situation and the recent arrest under the law suggests the same.

More than ten thousand tribal farmers were arrested under the sedition law for protesting against the land acquisition for the so-called development projects. This arrest led to a lot of criticism. The newly elected Chief Minister of the state of Jharkhand dropped the sedition charges against them. Stan Swamy of Maharashtra who is an 83 years old lady was arrested under the sedition law for posting documentation of police abuse in trial on facebook. Due to sedition charges, she had to stop writing on issues related to Human Rights. [9]In 2014, 60 Kashmiri students in Uttar Pradesh were charged under this law only because they were cheering for the Pakistan cricket team in a Pakistan – India match. Later, charges were dropped. A folk singer, S Kovan was accused of committing the offence of sedition only because in two of her songs she criticised the state government for making profit from a state – owned liquor shop at the expense of the poor. Ramaya, an actress was charged for sedition only because when she returned from her trip to Islamabad she praised the country Pakistan and its hospitality.[10]


CONCLUSION

From many examples discussed above it can be concluded that this law is being used by those in power and authoritarian positions to ensure their personal growth and benefit. Any voice or act which can endanger their strength and stance is directly announced as a threat to national security. Indira Gandhi, once under Article 352 of the Constitution, announced national emergency on the ground of internal disturbance which later found out was only for her benefit which also led to suspension of all the fundamental rights of the individual. Sanjay Gandhi remarked “India is Indira, Indira is India”. The sedition law is no national emergency law but if not taken care of it can lead to the same disastrous outcome. Hence, sedition law should be reframed keeping in mind the loopholes currently present in the Indian law which gives authorities the opportunities to misuse it to the extent that it is infringing one of the most vital Fundamental Rights which is Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression.

[1] “John Stuart Mill’s Defence of Freedom of Speech” http://andrewlynn.com/2019/04/14/john-staurt-mills-defence-of-freedom-of-speech/ [2] “Mere criticism is not seditious: Bombay High Court on Aseem Trivedi’s Cartoon” by Geeta Seshu (The Hoot, 18 March 2015) http://asu.thehoot.org/media-watch/law-and-policy/mere-criticism-is-not-seditious-bombay-high-court-on-aseem-trivedi-s-cartoons-8177 [3] Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar (1917) 19 BOMLR 211 [4] Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar 1962 AIR 955 [5] Dr. Binayak Sen v. State of Chhattisgarh [6] Sanskar Marathe v. State of Maharashtra 2015 Criminal Law Journal 3561 [7] Gurajtinder Pal Singh v. State of Punjab 2009 (3) RCR (Criminal) 224 [8] Balwant Singh v. State of Punjab AIR 1995 SC 1785

[9] “How India uses colonial – era sedition law against CAA protesters” by Anumeha Yadav (Aljazeera, 21 January 2020) http://www.google.com/amp/news/2020/01/india-colonial-era-sedition-law-caa-protestors-200120100338578.html [10] “Why India needs to get rid of its sedition law” by Soutik Biswas (BBC News, 28 August 2016) http://www.google.com/amp/s/www.bbc.com/news/amp.world-asia-india-37182206

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