Today’s topic ―Law of Sedition in India and Freedom of Expression ― is very important and relevant.
Right of freedom of speech & expression
In the Preamble to the Constitution, We the people of India‘ have promised to secure for all the citizens- liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship. This is an inherent human right and a part of the basic structure of the Constitution. There cannot be any democratic polity where the citizens do not have the right to think as they like, express their thoughts, have their own beliefs and faith, and worship in a manner which they feel like.
What is a general promise in the Preamble to the Constitution, later becomes an enshrined fundamental right. Article 19(1)(a) guarantees the right to freedom of speech and
expression. This right is a well-recognised right which includes within its ambit the right of freedom of press, the right to know, right to privacy, etc. Article 21 prescribes that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure prescribed by law. Article 25 makes it clear that every person is entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely practice, profess and propagate his or her religion.
No doubt, the State has the power to impose reasonable restriction on the exercise of such rights in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of the country, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, etc.
The right to freedom of opinion and the right of freedom of conscience by themselves include the extremely important right to disagree.
Every society has its own rules and over a period of time when people only stick to the age-old rules and conventions, society degenerates. New thinkers are born when they disagree with well-accepted norms of society. If everybody follows the well-trodden path, no new paths will be created, no new explorations will be done and no new vistas will be found. If a person does not ask questions and does not raise issues questioning age-old systems, no new systems would develop and the horizons of the mind will not expand. Whether it be Buddha, Mahavira, Jesus Christ, Prophet Mohammad, Guru Nanak Dev, Martin Luther, Kabir, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Karl Marx or Mahatma Gandhi, new thoughts and religious practices would not have been established, if they had quietly submitted to the views of their forefathers and had not questioned the existing religious practices, beliefs and rituals.
In a secular country, every belief does not have to be religious. Even atheists enjoy equal rights under our Constitution. Whether one is a believer, an agnostic or an atheist, one enjoys complete freedom of belief and conscience under our Constitution.
The right to dissent is one of the most important rights guaranteed by our Constitution. As long as a person does not break the law or encourage strife, he has a right to differ from every other citizen and those in power and propagate what he believes is his belief.
Law of sedition
The foremost thing that one must keep in mind is that this law was introduced at a time when we were ruled by a foreign imperialist colonising power. The British brooked no opposition and did not want to listen to any criticism. Their sole aim was to deprive the people of this country of their rights including the right to express their views. In my view, this right of freedom of expression is an inherent human right and even if, there was no Article 19, this right along with its limitations would be accepted to be an enforceable fundamental right.
A similar provision existed in the laws in England. However, in England, this offence was a misdemeanour, meaning a petty crime punishable with imprisonment up to 2 years, but for subjects in the colonies including India, the punishment was banishment for life, which essentially means life imprisonment.
At this stage, I would also like to refer to the Father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi, who in this city of Ahmedabad was charged with sedition. While appearing before Sessions Judge Broomfield, Mahatma Gandhi while dealing with the word ‘disaffection’ had this to say:
“Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence.” I think this brilliantly sums up what I want to say today that mere criticism without incitement to violence would not amount to sedition.
However, the Mahatma was sentenced to undergo imprisonment for 6 years.
You cannot force people to have affection for the Government and merely because people have disaffection or strongly disagree with the views of the Government or express their disagreement in strong words, no sedition is made out unless they or their words promote or incite or tend to promote or incite violence and endanger public order.
Interplay between freedom of expression and law of sedition
I would like to start with a quote from Justice Nariman’s opinion in Shreya Singhal’s case.
“This leads us to a discussion of what is the content of the expression ‘freedom of speech and expression’. There are three concepts which are fundamental in understanding the reach of this most basic of human rights. The first is discussion, the second is advocacy, and the third is incitement. Mere discussion or even advocacy of a particular cause howsoever unpopular is at the heart of Article 19(1) (a). It is only when such discussion or advocacy reaches the level of incitement that Article 19(2) kicks in. It is at this stage that a law may be made curtailing the speech or expression that leads inexorably to or tends to cause public disorder or tends to cause or tends to affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, etc….”
This passage brilliantly sums up what should be applied even in the laws of sedition. Though Justice Nariman expressed the view that discussion and advocacy are the inherent constituents of the right to Freedom of Speech and Expression, the harsh reality is that the art of conversation is itself dying down. There is no healthy discussion; there is no advocacy on principles and issues. There are only shouting and slanging matches. Unfortunately, the common refrain is either you agree with me or you are my enemy, or worse, an enemy of the nation, an anti-nationalist.
The constitutional validity of Section 124A has to be read in the context of Article 19 of the Constitution of India. Thus, it is clear that advocating any new cause however unpopular or uncomfortable it may be to the powers that be, it must be permitted. Majoritarianism cannot be the law.
Even the minority has the right to express its views. We must also remember that in India we follow the first past the post principle. Even Governments which come in with a huge majority do not get 50 per cent of the votes. Therefore, though they are entitled to govern or be called as majority, it cannot be said that they represent the voice of all the people.
There is another very important aspect of this interplay between freedom of expression and the law of sedition, and here I would also discuss the offence of creation of disharmony under Section 153A and criminal defamation under Section 499-500 IPC. Sedition can arise only against a Government established by law. Government is an institution, a body and not a person. Criticism of persons cannot be equated with criticism of the Government.
During the dark days of Emergency, an attempt was made by one Party President to equate his leader with the country. That attempt miserably failed and, I am sure that no one will ever try in future to equate a personality with this country of ours which is much bigger than any individual. Criticism of senior functionaries may amount to defamation for which they can take action in accordance with law but this will definitely not amount to sedition or creating disharmony.
The law of sedition is more often abused and misused. The people who criticise those in power are arrested by police officials on the asking of those in power and even if a person may get bail the next day from court, he has suffered the ignominy of being sent to jail. The manner in which the provisions of Section 124A are being misused, begs the question as to whether we should have a relook at it.
Freedom of expression being a constitutional right must get primacy over laws of sedition. Sedition is a crime only when there is incitement to violence or public disorder. That is what the law of the land is as laid down in Kedar Nath Singh’s case. Sadly, day in and day out, we read of people being arrested in different parts of the country for making cartoons, making not so complimentary references about the heads of the State, etc. The police always claim to be short of forces when questioned about the adverse law and order situation in various parts of the country. Trials in criminal cases of rape, murder and crimes falling under POCSO carry on for years on end because police officials do not have time to even depose before the courts but when it comes to sedition or Section 153A or implementing the provisions of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act (which has been declared unconstitutional), there seems to be no shortage of manpower and the police acts with great alacrity. It is, thus, clear that there is one set of rules for the rich and the powerful and another set of rules for the ordinary citizens of the country. In a country which professes to live by rule of law, this cannot be permitted.
The last few years have given rise to a number of cases where the law of sedition or creating disharmony have been misused rampantly by the police to arrest and humiliate people who have not committed the crime of sedition as laid down by the Constitution Bench of this Court.
I think our country, our Constitution and our national emblems are strong enough to stand on their own shoulders without the aid of the law of sedition. Respect, affection and love is earned and can never be commanded. You may force or compel a person to stand while the National Anthem is being sung but you cannot compel him within his heart to have respect for the same. How does one judge what is inside a person’s mind or in his heart?
In fact, in my view, the law of sedition needs to be toned down if not abolished and the least which the Government can do is to make it a non-cognisable offence so that the persons are not arrested at the drop of a hat.
India is a powerful nation, loved by its citizens. We are proud to be Indians. We, however, have the right to criticise the Government. Criticism of the Government by itself cannot amount to sedition. The shoulders of those in power who govern should be broad enough to accept criticism. Their thinking should be wide enough to accept the fact that there can be another point of view.
We all must be open to criticism. The judiciary is not above criticism. If Judges of the superior courts were to take note of all the contemptuous communications received by them, there would be no work other than the contempt proceedings. In fact, I welcome criticism of the judiciary because only if there is criticism, will there be improvement. Not only should there be criticism but there must be introspection. When we introspect, we will find that many decisions taken by us need to be corrected.
Criticism of the executive, the judiciary, the bureaucracy or the Armed Forces cannot be termed sedition. In case we attempt to stifle criticism of the institutions whether it be the legislature, the executive or the judiciary or other bodies of the State, we shall become a police State instead of a democracy and this the founding fathers never expected this country to be.
This is an edited excerpt of Supreme Court judge Justice Deepak Gupta’s speech on “Law of sedition in India and freedom of expression” at the workshop of lawyers, organised by Praleen Public Charitable Trust and Lecture Committee at Ahmedabad, Gujarat on 7 September, 2019.