By K Raveendran
The Law Commission has taken a political stand in its report about sedition rather than a policy stand, which a body of its very nature was expected to do. The commission’s non-statutory status does not preclude it from having an independent mind, which the present panel under the chairmanship of retired high court chief justice Rituraj Avasthi has regrettably preferred to forego. Its recommendations on the offence of sedition, widely considered a colonial relic, sound more like His Master’s Voice rather than a well-considered view of an expert panel.
In its 297th report, deliberating on a reference from the Union home ministry over a move to completely repeal the sedition law, defined as section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, the Law Commission has not only recommended continuation of the draconian law, but went a step further by proposing more stringent punishment. Presently, the offence is punishable with imprisonment up to 3 years or with fine. The commission has recommended the increase of jail term to life. Even more disturbing is a part of the recommendation which says “mere inclination to incite violence or cause public disorder rather than proof of actual violence or imminent threat to violence” would be sufficient ground for punishment. This is like handing over a blanket order to the government of the day.
Curiously, the new Law Commission has reneged on the panel’s own stand in 2018 favouring repeal of the law, on the ground that while it is essential to protect national integrity, it should not be misused as a tool to curb free speech. The commission asserted that in a democracy singing from the same songbook was not a benchmark of patriotism.
“If the country is not open to positive criticism, there lies little difference between the pre- and post-independence eras,” the 2018 report had said. It also said that expression of frustration over the state of affairs cannot be treated as sedition.”For merely expressing a thought, that is not in consonance with the policy of the government of the day, a person should not be charged under the section,” it had stressed.
The new Law Commission stand is also a negation of the approach of the Supreme Court in various cases relating to sedition charges. Last year, the apex court ordered putting the sedition law on hold and urged the Centre and state governments to refrain from lodging FIRs under Section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code until the Centre re-examined its provisions.
A three-judge bench of the apex court, led by the then Chief Justice N.V. Ramana, further announced that those who were languishing in jail in pending sedition cases could approach the courts and seek bail while the British-era law was under re-consideration. The court also ordered that all pending trials, appeals and proceedings with respect to the charge framed under Section 124Aof IPC be kept in abeyance.
While the Centre has been largely in agreement with the court’s views and the general perception about the colonial era law, it has been used by the Modi government as a powerful tool to criminalise dissent and arrest peaceful critics of the government. There has been an increasing number of cases in which the law was used to crack down on civil society and target activists, journalists, academicians for criticising the government.
According to a report based on related database, there has been an increase of 28 percent in the number of sedition cases even since Modi government came to power, with more than 500 sedition cases having been filed, involving more than 7,000 people. Even unfavourable remarks against the prime minister have attracted the draconian provisions of the law simply because these were considered by the authorities to be critical or derogatory. Some 15,000 people have been charged for such remarks, which gives an idea about the extent to which the law has been misused.
The British themselves have killed the sedition law, followed by several former colonies, on the ground that sedition and seditious and defamatory libel were arcane offences from a bygone era when freedom of expression wasn’t seen as the right it is today. One reason cited by UK to repeal the law was that the existence of such obsolete offences in that country had been used by other countries as justification for retention of similar laws which have been actively used to suppress political dissent and restrict freedom.
This provides the best context for denouncing the latest recommendations of the Law Commission, which has merely parroted the arguments of BJP and the RSS, under whose government democracy has even been struck off the school syllabus, So much for their love of democracy as a form of modern government. (IPA Service)