Successive governments have been all too eager to use the draconian provisions of the sedition law to silence people even when they have done nothing more than express a dissenting point of view. The same goes for the defamation law. It is to end these anomalies that the Law Commission of India has decided to take another look at these laws. It has begun to examine all laws pertaining to freedom of expression and speech and these include those relating to sedition, defamation and the lack of safeguards in online trolling and the right to privacy. For this it plans to hold a conference of jurists, sitting Supreme Court judges, high court judges, academics, lawyers and mediapersons. The outcome of this conference, to be held in November, is likely to be given to the government.
The fact that the present definition of sedition is far too wide has been accepted by the government itself after the Kanhaiya Kumar episode. The core ingredient of sedition is an imminent threat to public order. Vague and broad definitions of offences can lead to misinterpretations, whether deliberate or otherwise, and can result in the harassment of innocent people. The apex court had ruled earlier that if a person’s speech or action had a “pernicious tendency to create public disorder” that could be considered seditious. Some examples of the frivolous manner in which the sedition law has been used are those of Ramya, the actor-politician, who made a positive reference to Pakistan. Though many sedition charges have failed to stick, those held have been subject to harassment, held in pre-trial detention and subjected to trials. Very often, it is narrow focus interest groups that file these cases, as the one against Amnesty International, which was accused of raising anti-India slogans at a meet on Kashmir.
In other words, this law is often used to silence or limit peaceful dissent. NGOs, religious minorities, journalists and now students have been at the receiving end of this draconian law. Sedition charges have often been used as a political tool. State governments have used the sedition law to deal with people they deem uncomfortable even when their utterances in no way threatened the peace or created any disorder. A school principal who got a map of India wrong was slapped with a sedition charge. Many protestors against the Kudankulam nuclear plant were charged with sedition even though they had engaged in a peaceful protest. The law commission’s efforts could, if followed through, end this practice of criminalising and censoring people for expressing dissent and disaffection.