Thursday, August 5, 2021

Why do we need the colonial sedition law, CJI Ramana asks Centre

Justice Bopanna, Chief Justice Ramana, Justice Hrishikesh Roy

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday started hearing a petition challenging the sedition law. The apex court had decided to hear all the pleas filed against sedition law together. “Is the British-era sedition law still needed after 75 years of independence?” asked Chief Justice of India Justice NV Ramana presiding over the bench considering the petitions.  The court asked why the government, while taking a number of dated laws off the statute book,  is not looking into this law? The law is a serious threat to the functioning of institutions and holds ‘enormous power’ for misuse with no accountability for the executive, the court observed. The apex court compared the sedition law to a saw in the hands of an overzealous carpenter. Attorney General of India, KK Venugopal, however, argued that the law should be retained with “guidelines.” Beside Justice Ramana the other two members  in the bench are Justices AS Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy. The petition was filed by a retired army general.

Justice Ramana described Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code on sedition to “a saw to cut a forest instead of a piece of wood. There is enormous misuse. The use of sedition is like giving a saw to the carpenter to cut a piece of wood and he uses it to cut the entire forest itself. That is the effect of this law,” the court said. “If a police officer wants to fix anybody in a village for something, he can use Section 124A…people are scared,” said Justice Ramana.

“The dispute is it is a colonial law…the very same law was used by the British to silence Mahatma Gandhi and Gopala Krishna Gokhale to suppress the freedom movement. Is the law still necessary in the statute book in our country after 75 years of Independence?” Justice Ramana asked. He told KK Venugopal that “our concern is misuse of the law and no accountability to the executive.” He said there was minimal conviction or very low rate of conviction in the history of the sedition law.

The comments by the Chief Justice of India on Thursday were made while considering a petition filed by Major-General (Retd) SG Vombatkere who said the sedition law is wholly unconstitutional and should be “unequivocally and unambiguously struck down.” The petitioner said the law criminalises expression based on unconstitutionally vague definitions of disaffection towards the government.” The retired army officer said the law causes a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech and expression.

The CJI commented that the petition is not motivated since the petitioner is a soldier who almost sacrificed his life for the country.

Another bench in the same court has asked the Centre to respond to a petition filed by two journalists who challenged the sedition law. The two journalists, Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha from Manipur and Kanhaiya Lal Shukla from Chhattisgarh, contended that the sedition law violates freedom of speech and expression.

The sedition law has been more frequently used in recent years by NDA government at the centre and also some governments in States. It is being used against political rivals, journalists who criticize the government functioning and activists who work in public domain with only the constitution to help them.  For instance, Jammu & Kashmir’s former chief minister Farooq Abdullah who sought help from China and Pakistan against India on Article 370 on special status which was done away with by the Centre in August 2019 is a case in point.  The SC heard the case of sedition against Farooq Abdullah. Stan Swamy, an activist-cum-priest who was serving  the Adivasis in Jarkhand for over five decades was arrested some ten months ago from his residence in Ranchi and he died under custody in a Mumbai hospital last week while waiting on bail which was repeatedly denied by courts. Lakshadweep filmmaker Ayesha Sultana was rescued by Kerala High Court which granted her bail. Journalist from Kerala working for a website in Delhi, Siddique Kappan was arrested while going to report a rape and murder incident and the sedition was case was clamped on him. There are some 15 human rights activists under incarceration in the name of Bhima-Koregaon case in Taloja jail in Mumbai who were arrested under the sedition law.

The retired army general said in his petition that the changing times and the improvements in law have to be taken into consideration while dealing with his petition.

Haryana Police have charged over hundred farmers under sedition law for attacking the car of a BJP leader. The official vehicle of Deputy Speaker Ranbir Gangwa was damaged during the farmers’ protest against BJP-Jannayak Janata Party alliance demanding the removal of the controversial farm laws from the statute. The incident took place on 11 July 2021 and FIR was filed the same day. Apart from sedition law the farmers were also charged with attempt to murder. Leaders of the farmers’ movement Harharan Singh and Prahlad Singh were among those named in the FIR. An MP from Andhra Pradesh Raghu Ramakrishnam Raju was charged in sedition law by the government of Andhra Pradesh earlier. The extent of the abuse is unacceptable and the very existence of the law in the statute would be  a reason for its misuse.

K. Ramachandra Murthy
Founder & Editor

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