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Free Speech, Nationalism and Sedition

"If the students, in a democratic country like ours, won’t be given a chance to question and seek information from the government, then it is a question on the quality of our democracy."

Right to free speech and expression is one of the fundamental rights granted to all the citizens of India by the Constitution in Article 19(1)(a). However, even after being expressly mentioned, there have been many cases questioning the ambit of this freedom. This is subject to certain restrictions to its application given in Article 19(2) such as public order, decency and morality, the existence of which seems justified to ensure that one’s freedom to do something does not affect any other individual’s fundamental rights. Another such provision imposing a restriction on this freedom is S.124A of the Indian Penal Code,1860 which defines the offence of sedition and its punishment which ranges from three years to imprisonment for life. Sedition, in general terms, means any act or expression or representation which shows disaffection towards the government or its actions and incites feelings of hatred and violence towards the government. Mere criticism of the governmental actions without inciting any violence cannot be constituted as an offence under this section.

This offence was introduced by the British colonial government in India in order to supress the voices of Indians who were fighting for India’s freedom from the colonial rule and thereafter, has been retained in the Indian Penal Code as an offence. Many arguments and demands for quashing this section have been ignored by the government and judiciary too has held it to be constitutional.

Issue of Interpretation and Misuse:

The offence of sedition is being continually used by the Indian government to supress criticism. It has become the easiest tool to lower down the voices of those who try to revolt against some unsatisfactory decisions of the government.

Linking it to Nationalism and feelings of love and pride towards the nation, FIRs have been lodged against people who dissented with the government’s decisions or tried to bring to notice the loopholes in the legal framework or its implementation. Such is the case where a girl was arrested for posting a status update on a social media platform which criticized the shutdown during Bal Thackeray’s funeral in Maharashtra.. Another is the case of the famous cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, who made funny cartoons depicting the pitfalls of the implementation of the laws in our country, targeting corruption done by the government officers. Such incidents clearly depict the anxiety of the government and their inability to accept criticism. Such people have been categorized as ‘anti national’or ‘desh drohi’ by the government departments. However, it is pertinent to question the real meaning of an anti-national here. Does being national implies being loyal towards the Constitution, which lays down the law of the land or towards the government, how much ever right or wrong their actions might be? Is it just a way used by the government to threaten people from raising their voices against their decisions, which is a basic feature of a democracy? If today also, citizens are being stopped from expressing their views towards the functioning of the government, then it becomes difficult to understand the difference between the democratic form of government we have today and the British colonial rule or a Dictator rule. The recent incident of CBI raid at the house of the co-founders of NDTV ,Pranoy Roy and Radhika Roy, just after they had aired an interview where one of their news anchors had rebuffed the BJP spokesperson, on the ground of a private complaint for financial violations which was lodged eight years later is another example where the government has used its power and influence to suppress those who dare to speak against it.

The government has been increasingly using the offence of sedition to restrict the freedom of speech of those who challenge its power. The target space has also expanded to universities and institution, where students and organisations may question the decisions and policies of the government. The recent incident of Ramjas protests; #fightbackdu campaign or the JNU protests are clear examples. It is depressing to see how much hatred and atrocities the students have to face for mere sloganeering and protesting without the incitement of any violence. If the students, in a democratic country like ours, won’t be given a chance to question and seek information from the government, then it is a question on the quality of our democracy.

The offence of sedition and restrictions on free speech, have often been linked to cultural nationalism by the government. In the name of sedition, the views and beliefs of one culture or those of only a set of people are being imposed on others. There is a continuous effort by the government to stop all or any form of media that talks about the loopholes of the political or legal system in the country. It is not just the government but some majority sect of citizens as well, who try to influence the government, to take decisions which impose their views on others. Many incidents such as that of Beef Ban and increase in the mob lynching of Muslims are proofs of this attitude. Ban or editing of movies, documentaries and plays is another way of restricting the freedom to express opinions. The ban on release of the movie ‘Lipstick under my Burkha’ saying that it would provoke women is no proper justification. The case of editing of certain scenes from the movie’ ‘Udta Punjab’to the extent of even deleting the name Punjab from the title was not justified in the name of protecting the image of the state. The deletion of the scene where ‘Hanuman Chalisa’ fails to scare the ghost away was demanded in the movie ‘Phillauri’. The freedom to express through any form of media is fundamental to the existence of a democracy. All these incidents reflect the attempt made by the authorities not to let people gain access to the correct information, thus, curbing their ability to even think or question the set views and standards. The biggest pitfall in a democracy is when there is lack of multiple views on a given issue which results in accepting the norms without even questioning, thus turning it towards dictatorship.

On reading the language of the section, it can clearly be understood that it does not cover mere disapproval of the governmental actions unless and until it excites violence or provokes people to overthrow the government by means of arms and ammunition which has also been upheld by the judiciary in many cases. However, the government is still misusing the law for its own power.

Sedition is like a black law in a democracy. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru too, as mentioned in his speech was against retaining this provision. By retaining this provision the government has a tool to suppress the opinion of the public. A democracy is not a democracy unless the citizens along with positive views also have an opportunity to voice dissent and discuss revolutionary ideas without any restrictions. Our ancestors had fought to free us from the British rule to overcome such suppression. If this freedom is still controlled and restricted for unjustified reasons after passing of seventy years of independence, then there arises a real doubt as to whether the citizens of India are truly independent or not.

In order for a democracy to progress and government to function effectively as per the needs of the public, it is necessary that unnecessary restrictions on freedom of speech and expression be removed and an effort to make the society less intolerant be made.

Niharika Jain is a 2nd year student of BBA, LLB (Hons.) from Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, GGSIPU, Delhi. She interned with PUCL, Delhi unit, in summer 2017

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Related Bulletin : Aug 2017