Indian authorities use vaguely worded British-era as well as newer laws to criminalise free speech and stamp out dissent, the Human Rights Watch said in a report on Tuesday, calling on the government to do away with such legislation.
The report, titled “Stifling Dissent: The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in India”, said old and new laws were being used to restrict activities by NGOs, block internet sites and target “marginalized communities, particularly Dalits, and religious minorities” in the country.
The observations come amid rising instances of dissenting voices being dragged to court or citizens being jailed for expressing their opinion, especially on social media. The report mentioned the high-profile case of Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Kanhaiya Kumar’s arrest on sedition charges after a campus event in February where alleged anti-India slogans were shouted.
The government’s action against Kumar and fellow students triggered a debate on free speech and invited criticism by the Opposition and many public intellectuals who said cases of religious and political intolerance had gone up since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power in 2014.
The report said Indian authorities and political parties used government resources to file cases under archaic laws.
“India’s abusive laws are the hallmark of a repressive society, not a vibrant democracy,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Putting critics in prison or even forcing them to defend themselves in lengthy and expensive court proceedings undermine the government’s efforts to present India as a modern country in the Internet age committed to free speech and the rule of law.”
The human rights organisation said its report was based on an in-depth analysis of various provisions of the Indian Penal Code (including laws on sedition, criminal defamation, hate speech).
The report also referred to Indian laws that criminalise defamation, saying such legislation should be scrapped in keeping with the views of the United Nations Human Rights Committee. But earlier this month, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of such legal provisions, observing that they do not clash with the right to free speech.
“Sedition and criminal defamation laws are routinely used to shield the powerful from criticism, and send a message that dissent carries a high price,” Ganguly said.
“India’s courts have largely been protective of freedom of expression but as long as you have bad laws on the books, free speech will remain under threat,” she said.
The Tamil Nadu government has used criminal defamation cases against journalists, with about 200 such cases pending in the state.
The Human Rights Watch’s report also cited Penguin India’s decision to withdraw a book on the history of Hinduism by American scholar Wendy Doniger in 2014 rather than fight a case brought by a religious group.