Creating a climate for free expression of thoughts and ideas without fear of criminal prosecution is essential for growth of any civilization. It is all the more important for democracies to survive. The time has come to have a re-look at the sedition law because its provisions are often misused and targeted at critics of the government of the day. Such laws have no place in matured democracies. In this regard, the recent observations by Justice Deepak Gupta, a senior judge of the Supreme Court, deserve wider debate in the country. He has rightly pointed out that the criticism of the executive, judiciary, bureaucracy or the armed forces cannot be termed sedition. If we attempt to stifle criticism of the institutions, we will become a police State instead of a thriving democracy. Moreover, the conviction rate in such cases is very low. Sedition law should not be invoked if one merely disagrees with the government. More often than not, the provisions of Section 124A are misused with the police targeting the critics of the government and harassing them. Recently, the anti-terror unit of the Delhi Police booked Jammu & Kashmir People’s Movement party functionary Shehla Rashid for sedition in connection with her tweets about the alleged human rights violations by the Army in Kashmir valley. In the recent past, a Manipuri journalist Kishorechand Wangkhem was arrested for sedition for an offensive online post against chief minister N Biren Singh and detained for 12 months under the National Security Act.
There has been a growing tendency among the governments, irrespective of the party in power, to invoke the provisions of sedition law against people for raising certain slogans, staging protests against a nuclear power project or innocuous posts on the social media. Before Independence, this law was used by the British to suppress the freedom movement. Ironically, the same draconian law has become a tool that the country is now using against its own people. In an ideal democracy, people should not have any fear of government’s persecution while expressing their views. The affection and love is earned and can never be commanded. The criticism of the State is an essence of democracy. It is distressing that Section 66A of the IT Act, which imposes restrictions on the freedom of expression in an online space, is still being used by the lower judiciary and the police even after being struck down. At a time when the judiciary is criticised for its verdicts and the appointment of judges, it must be open to public scrutiny and criticism without hauling up anyone for contempt of court. In order to uphold the idea of democracy, it is time India removed sedition from its statute books.