Lakshadweep episode shows law being used to stifle dissent
The sedition charge against Lakshadweep based film-maker and activist Aisha Sultana for criticising the UT’s administrator Praful Khoda Patel comes against the backdrop of the Supreme Court agreeing, in May, to examine the Constitutional validity of the colonial era sedition law and throwing out, earlier this month, a case against journalist Vinod Dua. Citing its 1962 Kedar Nath Singh judgment, the SC observed “every journalist is entitled to protection”.
The verdict sought to preserve this freedom for the citizen, saying, “A citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the Government, or its measures, by way of criticism or comment, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the Government established by law.” Yet, the law continues to be invoked with such disregard for democratic principles that even a ruling-party lawmaker in a state censored his own criticism the state government for fear of sedition charges. The law has now become a tool to stifle dissent. Diminishing the scope of the law hasn’t really worked.
Kedar Nath Singh had circumscribed the application of the law to “acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder, or disturbance of law and order, or incitement to violence.” It even specifically narrowed down its scope in order to protect dissent. Yet, the application of the law has been, more often than not, atavistic—reflecting the colonial-era mindset to control political expression and curb dissent.
Thanks to indiscriminate application, charges often don’t seem to stick. As per the National Crime Records Bureau, while 96 persons were arrested for sedition in 2019, 76 were charge-sheeted; only 2 were convicted and 29 acquitted. Cases are likely pending against the rest, but the success rate in the concluded trials really shows up the State’s efficiency in investigation and prosecution.
The Centre has painted itself into a corner, refusing to commit to scrapping the law; in replies to Parliament questions, it has repeatedly maintained a cryptic “amendment of criminal laws is a continuous process” after July 2019 when it had clearly said there was no proposal to scrap the law. This, despite the Union home minister’s talk of the need to overhaul the IPC to rid it of its “master and servant” spirit, given it was meant to “maintain the stability of the British empire”.
The government must heed the words of the judiciary; in the Disha Ravi matter, a Delhi court had had evoked a colonial-era judgment to underscore the fact that the law can’t be a tool at the hands of prickly ruling dispensations to serve “wounded vanity of governments”.
On Tuesday, granting bail to activists Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, and Asif Iqbal Tanha—in a matter involving another draconian law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act—the Delhi High Court wrote in its order, “in its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the State, the line between the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred.
If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy.” It is no one’s case that the government must not act against those endangering the nation’s security, but even the UK, which had scripted India’s sedition law as its colonial master, scrapped it within its own jurisdiction in 2009.