Justice Deepak Gupta, Judge at the Supreme Court of India, while delivering a valedictory address at a lawyers’ workshop in Ahmedabad on ‘Law of sedition in India and freedom of expression’ recently, made the following important points about the Sedition law. First, criticism of the executive, the judiciary, the bureaucracy or the Armed Forces cannot be termed sedition. In case the State attempts to stifle criticism of institutions, whether they are the legislature, the executive, the judiciary or other bodies of the State, India will become a ‘Police State’ instead of a democracy. Secondly, merely because a person does not agree with the government in power or is virulently critical of the government in power, does not make him any less a patriot than those in power.
The celebrated poet Rabindranath Tagore, who penned our National Anthem, indeed said that nationalism is a great menace. He was no less a patriot than any Indian. Thirdly, 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. Even if a person gets bail the next day from a court, he or she has suffered the social embarrassment 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, the judge noted. Fourthly, 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, he said.
Fifthly, a very important aspect of a democracy is that the citizens should have no fear of the government. They should not be scared of expressing views that may not be liked by those in power, he said. The reality is that we are already a ‘Police State’ where various institutions like the CBI, Enforcement Directorate, police are being used to silence all criticism of and all opposition to those in power. It is not just vocal political leaders like P Chidambaram and DK Shivakumar who are being targeted. The civil society consisting of activists, scholars, writers and artists are also not being spared. Possession of books has started to look like a crime. The morning raid at the Noida residence of Delhi University Associate Professor Hany Babu is a case in point. Charges of sedition, of waging war against the state and of criminal conspiracy have been slapped on him.
The recent amendments to the UAPA Act has given the police and other agencies unlimited powers to appear at anyone’s doorstep, search the place without any warrant, seize anything and arrest anyone without any linkage to any terror group. If Tagore were to dub nationalism as a menace in this time and space, he would be tried for sedition. If this is not a ‘Police State’, then what is? If Indian democracy has to survive this onslaught, the entire gamut of Opposition parties and the civil society must engage students, workers and farmers across the country in an awareness campaign that can be moulded into a mass movement for restoration of democratic norms, principles, based on justice and fairness. This process needs to start now.