SEDITION LAW: DILUTING DISSENT IN THE GUISE OF PROTECTING ‘NATIONAL INTEREST’

Democracy being the shrine of dissent bestows upon the citizens of a country the very right to voice out their opinions without the fear of it being stifled or any such intellectual freedom being suffocated. The three vehicles of freedom as mentioned in clauses (a) to (c) of Article 19(1)[1] under the Indian constitution drive the expression of dissent. Justice D.Y Chandrachud in a speech stated: “The blanket labelling of dissent as anti-national or anti-democratic strikes at the heart of our commitment to protect constitutional values and the promotion of deliberative democracy[2].

Growing concerns have been expressed about the sedition law being used as a politically driven weapon to exact vengeance on the other political party while curtailing free expression. According to Section 124-A[3] of the Indian Penal Code, “any speech that brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government” is a criminal offence punishable by a three-year fine and imprisonment ranging from three years to life. The primary objective of implementing this provision under the British Raj was to obnoxiously repress dissent and prevent transgressions against the state; nonetheless, it was reimposed in India through the contentious constitutional amendment during the tenure of First Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

What was intended to be applied in the rare instances where the sovereignty and the country’s security were jeopardized has instead become an axe to grind by harassing innocent individuals through police officers. The erroneous interpretation and the vaguely defined phrases “bring hatred or contempt” or “attempt to excite disaffection” have culminated in a gross attempt at disobedience and instability. Scholars have examined the development of sedition law since independence, and such ambiguous wordings have been used by the government to constantly clamp down on dissent.

In today’s social media-influenced world, a toolkit is a reliable measure that includes materials for frontline workers involved in a campaign as well as a strategy for moving the campaign ahead. During the farmers’ mass protest, Disha Ravi, a 22-year-old environmental activist, was detained by the police on charges of “criminal conspiracy” and “promoting animosity” in collaboration with “Pro Khalistani poetic justice foundation” after tweeting Greta Thunberg’s “toolkit” which was in solidarity with the farmers agitating against the BJP government’s farm laws and allegedly further instigated the violence on January 26 in a “wanton manner”. As per the reports, the toolkit was designed to help those who were unfamiliar with the farmers’ protest, to have better knowledge about it and make informed decisions. The Delhi court later granted her bail, stating that “the offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments.”[4]

The question here arises does a protest toolkit and the activism engaged in its endeavour fall within the ambit of dissatisfaction towards the government? The protestors were urged to employ legitimate ways to continue the demonstration in order to build global momentum, in compliance with the instructions specified in the toolkit. The standard for proving sedition is high enough, and to reach it, one must establish that the speech went to the extent of inciting violence. Senior advocate Sanjay Hedge had explained that “The toolkit was only speech in support of farmers. I doubt that it meets the standard of what constitutes sedition, as upheld by the Supreme Court in Kedar Nath & Balwant Singh cases”. 

Inferences cannot be used as a basis to determine conspiracies unless substantial evidence isn’t supported by it. Distinct opinions, disapproval, or disagreement are all regarded as appropriate techniques for instilling impartiality. Contrary opinions or critiques of the government’s policies unquestionably contribute to the liveliness of democracy. Obtaining global backing for an Indian movement is not forbidden. Though statements by the international community may appear to be interfering in the internal affairs of the country, this is not prohibited under the law. Furthermore, the Indian government has frequently commented on foreign issues and shown concerns about them. This, on the other hand, does not prevent Indian citizens from exercising their rights. Article 19(2) of the constitution nowhere mentions the terms “anti-national’ or “national interest”, rendering the police’s argument about the involvement of Disha Ravi in the toolkit case hampering national interest, unsustainable. Furthermore, there is no indication that the contents of the toolkit or correspondence with persons abroad prompted the January 26th violence. It is not that the makers or distributors intended to overthrow law enforcement when it is apparent that the main objective was to muster support.

The cornerstone of democracy, freedom of speech has been compromised, and constructive critiques of the government have been diluted as sedition. According to the Indian constitution, the basic right to free speech and expression is not absolute and is subject to “reasonable constraints,” which does not have sedition within its ambit. The constituent assembly had unequivocally resolved not to recognize sedition as an exception to free speech restrictions. The Supreme Court ruled that a suitable causation and proximity test is required to prevent arbitrariness and to comply with the rationality requirement of Article 19(2).  An arbitrary law is unlawful beyond a reasonable doubt as per the Indian jurisprudence. The core of democracy is that citizens must participate not only in the electoral process but also in the working of the country. When citizens are not given the liberty to criticise the government, the fundamental purpose of democracy is thwarted, since a citizen is an intrinsic member of the country and has the right to express their viewpoints. The very endeavour to silence critics of various organs and institutions would result in the country becoming a totalitarian rather than a democratic state, contradicting the aspirations of the founding fathers.

Author’s Name: Richa Rout (National Law University Odisha)

[1] The Constitution of India 1950, ar. 19(1) (a-c).

[2] ‘Blanket labelling of dissent as anti-national hurts ethos of democracy: Justice Chandrachud’ TheHindu (Ahmedabad 15 February, 2020) < https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/blanket-labelling-of-dissent-as-anti-national-hurts-ethos-of-democracy-justice-chandrachud/article61631014.ece >.

[3] The Indian Penal Code, s. 124-A.

[4] Niharendu Dutt Mazumdar v. Emperor AIR 1942 FC22.

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