New Delhi: Former Supreme Court judge Justice M.B. Lokur Monday said the government was using sedition law “as an iron hand to curb speech”.
The retired judge was speaking at a webinar organised by the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms (CJAR) and Swaraj Abhiyan.
“State can curb and check speech in a constitutional manner. But the state is using sedition as an iron hand to curb speech. Suddenly, you have a lot of cases being filed charging people of sedition,” he said.
The judge’s comments come a day after former JNU student leader Umar Khalid was arrested for his alleged involvement in the northeast Delhi riots. Anti-terror charges under the stringent Unlawful Activities and Prevention Act (UAPA), besides various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including sedition, have been invoked against Khalid.
“A speech which talks about unity and integrity of the country is seen as ‘breaking the country’ and the person is put under preventive detention. There are youngsters, students talking about doing good for the country, but you (the State) say I am arresting you for unlawful activities and sedition,” the judge remarked.
According to him, statements are being misinterpreted, as was done in advocate Prashant Bhushan’s case where the Supreme Court convicted and fined him for contempt of court for his two “mischievous tweets” against the present Chief Justice of India (S.A. Bobde) as well as four former CJIs.
‘Citizens speaking within constitutional limits’
Justice Lokur attacked the government for slapping sedition charges against common people who say something against it. He claimed that around 80 cases have already been filed this year.
“Citizens are speaking within the constitutional limits. The State, however, thinks you are speaking within constitutional limits but … are transgressing,” the judge added.
Such severe reactions have been difficult for citizens, who, he said, can only continue to speak without getting violent. “She/he cannot get violent or take to streets.”
‘Use of sedition is an overreaction to free speech’
The judge also slammed the government for dubbing reports as “fake news” in order to slap sedition charges. He cited an instance from Punjab where a journalist was booked for sedition and arrested for reporting on the shortage of ventilators in the state.
“The reporter claimed that the Covid-19 situation is not under control and he believed the chief minister may be changed. The State labelled this ‘speculative report’ as fake news and arrested the reporter for sedition,” Justice Lokur recalled.
Misreading statements was another way in which the sedition law was being misused, the judge asserted.
“There are other people who talk about violence and breaking things and you don’t do anything to them. Use of sedition is an overreaction to free speech,” he said. The judge added that it was unfortunate how people who are put under preventive detention do not challenge it.
The former Supreme Court judge also said the number of pending cases in district courts was over two crore at the time when he was serving. It has jumped to 3.4 crore now, he said.
Vacancies in district courts was a growing crisis, which, Justice Lokur said, the judiciary cannot address without making the system more transparent.