CJI Ramana stands for liberty
Hearing a plea by an army veteran that challenges Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, popularly termed the sedition law, on grounds of being “vague” and having a “chilling effect on free speech”, Chief Justice of India NV Ramana made his discomfort with the provision clear, asked the right questions, and offered a wise perspective on the issue. To be sure, at the moment, the court has just issued a notice, the Centre has to respond, there are other petitions challenging sedition on grounds of being unconstitutional, it isn’t clear if all petitions will get clubbed, and no decision has been taken. But by outlining his clear views on the matter, in the backdrop of earlier judicial pronouncements which suggest that Supreme Court (SC) is willing to re-examine the colonial-era law, CJI Ramana has given hope to all those who believe that Section 124A is anathema to India’s democratic character.
CJI Ramana first questioned the rationale of the law, pointing out that it was framed in colonial times and was used to silence Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and asked, “Is it necessary after 75 years of Independence?” He then pointed to the vast powers embedded in the law and its potential and actual misuse, the lack of accountability of executive agencies, and added if some state or political party did not wish to hear a voice, they could implicate a group of people under the law. This is not a hypothetical scenario, for the government has indeed used the provision to silence dissenters. The CJI even drew an analogy with a carpenter using a saw to cut down the entire forest instead of a tree and asked if the government had been proactive in repealing older laws, why had it not done so in this case? By highlighting the low conviction rate in sedition cases, the CJI was hinting at what many victims already know — the process is the punishment even when the case lacks substance.
The CJI’s position is welcome, and the Centre must use this moment not just to draw out strict legal parameters for the use of Section 124A, as the attorney general seemed to indicate, but repeal it altogether. There are enough legal provisions to act against those who pose a threat to the security and sovereignty of the State. Preserving the liberty of citizens is a sacred duty of all branches of the State. The judiciary has opened the door, the executive must reciprocate rather than stick to the draconian law. And if it does not do its bit, SC must repeal Section 124A.
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