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Silencing Dissent: Misreading of Sedition Law Leads to Misuse to Shut Up Critics 

Charging dissenters and those criticising a faulty government with sedition is an infringement of basic human rights. It’s increasing usage as a tool to silence those speaking against powers that be is not characteristic of an independent republic, and it stems from a grave misreading of the law itself, writes GYAN PATHAK


ANYONE In India against the ruling establishment is under threat of being booked under sedition and put into jail by the government. The spurt in sedition cases under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rule has put a large number of people under intimidation, who are now avoiding expressing their dissent even on the wrongs committed by government authorities. It is increasingly being felt that one should keep silent on the government’s affairs or else face the consequences, even if one doesn’t commit any crime.

People seem to be entirely on the sweet will of the government, and any of one’s disagreement or dissent expressed in words or visual imageries can be treated as seditious. It is as if there is no other appropriate section in the India Penal Code (IPC) or other laws relating to crime, and that has threatened even the birthrights of a human being.

Sedition Law Being Misunderstood

We have come to this predicament due to several reasons originating from omission and commission of all the three wings of governance, which are the Legislature, the Executive, and the Judiciary, in addition to ignorance about what exactly ‘sedition’ is. The government is bent upon misusing Section 12A of the IPC 1860, which was originally inserted in it by Act 27 of 1870, and was further amended in 1898, 1937, 1948, 1950, 1951, 1955, and 1956.

The rampant misuse of this provision now makes a case for further amendment in this section, which was inserted in the IPC 1860 as a tool in the hands of the government to suppress dissent. It is worth mentioning that Indians were then subject to British rule, not independent citizens of a democratic republic as we are now. We now have fundamental duties to criticise and warn of the errors and pitfalls of the governance that can jeopardise the national interest irrespective of who rules the country.

It is therefore clear that criticism of the government of the time does not constitute the offence of sedition. This wisdom bars us to have any literal view of Section 124A of the IPC which states, “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for 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.”

The way the present ruling establishment is misusing this Section, it perhaps does not know what sedition is or deliberately violating the spirit of the sedition law to their own end for the establishment of their absolute undemocratic rule. Our Legislature of Independent India could not have visualised such blatant misuse of this section while amending it.

Why is the judiciary not putting a brake on such misuse of this section by giving lessons to the government or making them understand what really constitutes sedition? All the wings of the governance have a responsibility to secure at least ‘freedom of expression’ of their citizens, and all sorts of intimidation to silence them must be removed.

Several Other Laws for Offences Against State

Offences against the state are enumerated in a separate chapter of the IPC, and sedition is only one of them. The offences beginning at Section 121 and ending at Section 130 are altogether 12, including section 121A and 124A. The IPC itself has made a distinction of the crime of ‘sedition’ from all other crimes against the state. Thus, even waging, or attempting to wage war, or abetting waging of war against the government of India; conspiracy to commit offences punishable under Section 121; collecting arms, etc, with intention of waging war against the Government of India; concealing with intent to facilitate design to wage war; assaulting President, Governor, etc, with intent to compel or restrain the exercise of any lawful power; waging war against any Asiatic Power in alliance with the Government of India, Committing depredation on territories of Power at peace with the Government of India; receiving property taken by war or depredation mentioned in sections 125 and 126; public servant voluntarily allowing prisoner of the state of war to escape; public servant negligently suffering such prisoner to escape; or aiding the escape of, rescuing or harbouring such prisoner are not ‘sedition’. Such offences are at best ‘offences against the state.

The jurisprudence relating to crimes are thus to be understood carefully. One must make a distinction, as the IPC itself has made in its provisions, among the ‘simple breach of a rule’, ‘offence against an authority in power’,  ‘offence against a ruling establishment’, ‘offence against state machinery’, ‘offence against the state’, and ‘sedition’. Any disagreement with the government, its policies, its leaders on account of their failure in protecting the national interest should not be thus viewed as ‘offence against state’ much the less a ‘sedition’.

Dissent is a Birthright

The view was taken by many scholars that ‘sedition is bringing or attempting to bring into hatred or contempt or exciting or attempting to excite disaffection towards government by words either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation or otherwise’ is thus faulty since it does not necessarily constitute ‘sedition’. We have a birthright to express against anything wrong done to us. If we snatch this right of an individual or as a nation, the whole criminal justice system would crumble down.

Any offence committed against an individual, society, or the government do ultimately harm the nation, but we have separate provisions of criminal laws for every crime, under which they must be registered. Booking all critical to the faulty governance is certainly not ‘sedition’, though such criticism possibly can excite ‘disaffection towards the government’ but maybe in the national interest. It is what democracy is, and the Modi government must encourage democracy without fearing criticism, which would be nationalism in the true sense. Don’t make the people living ‘dead’ by losing the courage to oppose what they believe to be ‘injustice’. (IPA Service)

(Gyan Pathak is a senior journalist. The views are personal.)