The Supreme Court dismissing a public interest litigation against former Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah, facing charges under the sedition Act, has once again brought into focus the relevance of the draconian British-era law in a mature democracy. India has been witnessing a disturbing trend of treating any serious disagreement with the government of the day, irrespective of the nature of political dispensation, as seditious. And, cases are being filed under Section 124A of the IPC. Last week, a Delhi Sessions Court too resented the idea of putting people behind bars simply because they chose to disagree with the state policies. These two court rulings highlight how the governments have been misusing the provisions of the sedition law to stifle the voices of dissent. The crux of the PIL against Abdullah was that his views on the abrogation of Article 370 were anti-national and seditious in nature, particularly his statement that he would take the help of China to restore the special status to J&K. In an ideal democracy, people should not have any fear of government’s persecution while expressing their views. Before Independence, this law was used by the British to suppress the freedom movement. Ironically, the same draconian law has become a tool to be used against its own people. Interestingly, the United Kingdom, on which much of Indian jurisprudence is based, had abolished its sedition law in 2009 while the Indian version of the legislation still penalises a person who “by words, either spoken or written excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government”.
In the past, the government’s justification for retaining the sedition law was that the Supreme Court had repeatedly observed that mere possibility of misuse of a provision does not per se invalidate the legislation. Now that the apex court made a categorical observation against invoking the controversial law against the voices of dissent, the government must take a re-look at the law which is dangerously overbroad and capable of trapping the innocent. The misuse of this law has destroyed many lives and, ironically, the conviction rate in such cases has been less than 4%. Moreover, the provisions in the penal code dealing with offences against the state are adequate to achieve the object of protection of sovereignty. It is incongruous for a liberal and free democratic country to have a sedition law that fights its own citizens. In fact, criticism of the state is the essence of democracy. If we attempt to stifle criticism of the institutions, we will become a police state instead of a thriving democracy. In order to uphold the idea of democracy that the Constitution framers envisioned, India should eschew the word sedition from its statute books.
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