Monday, May 20, 2024

Dissent vs. Sedition: Courts have laid down the law, put up guard rails

When an amendment to Section 124A made its way to the IPC in 1898, it stood to define sedition as an offence that incites or seeks to incite emotions of dissatisfaction with the government.

Interestingly, sedition accounts for less than 0.01 per cent of all crimes committed in India. Although it remains a rarity of a ‘crime’, certain areas have come to be understood as possible hotbeds of sedition. For instance, between 2014-18, Jharkhand and Assam accounted for 32 per cent of all sedition cases in India with 37 charges in each of these states.

More than 3,300 farmers were slapped with sedition in 2019 for protesting over land conflicts; and over 3,000 people were charged with sedition in January 2021 for opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019.

However, the colonial engineering of ‘sedition’ and the implementation of this method of control that was exercised by the British over Indians remains in existence, decades after the colonisers departed from India, albeit the court dispenses justice – and some food for thought.

Herewith are some landmark lawsuits that happened in the shadow of Independence.

In 1958 was the first case to address the legitimacy of Section 124A: Ram Nandan vs State of Uttar Pradesh. Allahabad High Court held that Section 124A of the IPC was ultra vires in character and violated Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution (right to freedom of speech and expression).

Subsequently, the constitutional validity of Section 124A was challenged in Supreme Court in Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar case in 1962. The the argument focused on the fact that Section 124A conflicted with Article 19(1)(a).

The Supreme Court ruling was that for a crime to be established as sedition under Section 124A, there must be said or written remarks that have the potential to cause disruption or disturbance of public order by means of violence. It meant there is no offence unless the statements are likely to incite violence. This verdict thus overruled the decision of the Allahabad High Court.

Then in 1995, the apex court ruled in Balwant Singh And Anr vs State of Punjab that simply raising slogans like “Khalistan Zindabad” and “Raj Karega Khalsa” in public places do not amount to sedition in the absence of evidence or record of occurrence of violence.

The court was firm in this legal stance over few other cases such as Bilal Ahmed Kaloo vs State of Andhra Pradesh (1997) and Common Cause vs Union of India (2018).

With the instruction to courts that they must adhere to the principles laid down in the Kedar Nath case, it was reiterated that sedition charges cannot be a result of merely criticising the government or its policies.

In the recent times, few cases that brought forth the understanding and debate surrounding sedition and its constitutionality afresh are as follows:

Satirising the government: Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha vs Union of India (2021)

On February 17, 2021, journalists Kishore Wangkhemcha and Kanhaiya Lal Shukla filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of sedition law.

Wangkhemcha is a Manipur-based journalist and was arrested for his criticism of the Government of Manipur and its association with the ruling NDA government in August 2018. He called the Chief Minister a “puppet of Hindutva” in a video on social media.

Shukla, a Chattisgarh-based journalist posted cartoons on social media which satirised the fake encounters allegedly conducted by the Gujarat police between 2002 and 2006. Shukla was charged with sedition in April 2018.

Dissecting the impact of the pandemic: Vinod Dua vs Union of India (2021)

The late veteran journalist had released a video on his YouTube channel on March 30, 2020, as an episode of ‘The Vinod Dua Show’. In the video, he presented a critical analysis of the Covid-induced nationwide lockdown, drawing attention to not just the major health issue but also to the insufficient testing facilities on the part of the government, along with scarcity of information regarding availability of materials like PPE kits, N95 masks, etc.

Added to this was spotlighting the plight of labour and their migration.

The case against Dua alleged that he was spreading false and malicious news about the Prime Minister of India, thus disturbing the tranquility in public.

Interestingly, this episode bears a striking resemblance with 1897, when Bal Gangadhar Tilak was accused of sedition for publishing articles in his newspaper (Kesari) which allegedly instigated people to thwart the (British Indian) government’s effort to curb the plague in India.

Farooq Abdullah’s comment on abrogation of Article 370: Rajat Sharma vs Union of India (2021)

In an interview, Farooq Abdullah remarked that “whatever they are doing at LAC in Ladakh is all because of the abrogation of Article 370, which they never acknowledged. I am hopeful that Article 370 would be reinstated in J&K with their help.”

Abdullah had also spoken about “restoring Article 370” with “China’s support,” according to Rajat Sharma and Neh Srivastava’s petition. Before this, Abdullah had stated in an interview with The Wire that Kashmiri people do not feel Indian and would rather be dominated by the Chinese.

According to the petitioners, Abdullah’s statement was tentamount to sedition and thus called for punishment under the said law.

The apex court bench imposed a fine of Rs 50,000 on the petitioners for filing a PIL seeking initiation of proceedings against former J&K Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah for his “pro-China” comments. The bench observed that expressing a point of view that is at variance with the decision made by the Central Government, cannot be called seditious.

Galwan Valley Clashes : Zakir Hussain vs UT of Ladakh (2021)

On the of June 18, 2020, the Jammu & Kashmir police filed an FIR against Zakir Hussain and Nissar Ahman Khan for a viral audio clip that contained objectionable conversation demeaning the country’s armed forces. This occurred against the backdrop of clashes between the Indian Army and Chinese forces in Ladakh’s Galwan valley.

The petitioner argued before J&K High Court that the police had no power to file an FIR since as per law, the court may only take notice of a complaint submitted by a District Magistrate under Section 196 of CrPC, and no such complaint was lodged in this case.

Toolkit case: State vs Disha A. Ravi (2021)

Disha A. Ravi, a 22-year-old environment activist was taken in custody for her involvement in the toolkit case during the farmer’s movement against the new farmer’s bills in 2020. She was accused of sedition and criminal conspiracy.

A toolkit is a documented set of information that provides online resources to further information about the cause of a particular protest.

Delhi’s Patiala House court passed an interim order and granted bail to the applicant. In the absence of evidence, the court set her free and upheld that dissent and divergence of thoughts was a sign of healthy democracy as free speech is a Constitutionally granted fundamental right. The court also stated that the right to seek a global audience is part of freedom of speech and expression.

(Kavya Dubey may be reached at kavya.d@ians.in)

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