Countering a political act that has a legal garb

Synopsis: Sedition cases should be charged only when any act either spoken or written creates incitement into violence or social disturbance. 

  • Recently, Aisha Sultana, a filmmaker from Lakshadweep, booked for the alleged offences of sedition and statements prejudicial to national integrity. 
  • She was alleged to have used the word ‘bioweapon’ in a television discussion while criticising the Lakshadweep Administrator’s actions 
  • However, MS. Sultana’s case is only one among the numerous sedition cases recently registered in the country. 
  • Earlier, In Lakshadweep, people were booked for sedition cases even for putting up placards or posters against the Prime Minister. 
Sedition during British India  
  • The offence of sedition was introduced in 1870 under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).  
  • In 1922, Mahatma Gandhi, was charged with sedition. He described the provision as “perhaps the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.” 
  • Gandhiji, who himself was a lawyer, made two points in his statement during trial. 
  • One, he admitted the charge of preaching disaffection towards the then existing regime. 
  • Two, he justified his act and said that it was his duty to do so as it is “a sin to have affection for the system under the British Raj. 
  • Further, explained that Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. 
  • If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection so long as he does not incite violence. 
  • After this, the British Raj used the draconian provision only when they alleged that a speech or a writing resulted in violence, or social disturbance. For example, 
  • Bal Gangadhar Tilak was tried in 1897 on an accusation that the articles in Kesari (Marathi paper owned by him) incited violence that led to the killing of two British officers. Tilak was convicted and sentenced to undergo rigorous imprisonment for 18 months. 
Sedition in Free India: Kedar Nath Singh case 
  • Kedar Nath Singh case (1962), the assertion made by Gandhiji in the court was indirectly laid down as the law by the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court. 
  • In Kedar Nath Singh, the accusation was that Kedar Nath, a Forward Communist Party leader, had asserted his belief in a revolution. 
  • He said that the revolution “in the flames of which the capitalists, zamindars, and the Congress leaders of India…. will be reduced to ashes….” 
  • The Court said that “comments, however strongly worded, expressing dislike of actions of the Government, without exciting violence, would not be penal.” 
  • Similarly, in Balwant Singh case (1995), slogans for an independent Sikh nation were found to be not seditious as it did not lead to incitement of violence. 
  • This proposition was followed consistently, till Vinod Dua (2021) case, where the Court said that a journalist cannot be booked for sedition for expressing dissent. 
What is the current situation? 
  • Even today, the draconian law of sedition is being used against political opponents essentially as a political act. 
  • Sedition charges are frequently and intentionally being registered solely based on words spoken, written, or tweeted. For example, Aisha Sultana case. 
  • According to the report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), between 2016 and 2019 there was a 160% increase in the registration of sedition cases. However, the conviction rate during this period fell from 33.3% to 3.3%. 
  • This can have a chilling effect on people’s movements. 
Way forward 
  • The Supreme Court of India and the High Courts should take Suo Motu cognisance of the incidents where the state purposefully uses draconian laws to suppress criticism and protest. 
  • Such Suo Motu proceedings would reflect the kind of judicial activism that our time demands. 

Source: The Hindu 

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