Abolish sedition law

MDMK founder and General Secretary, Vaiko, speaks during a protest rally against the Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit in Chennai in Dec 2018. PTI File Photo

The conviction of Vaiko, leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) in Tamil Nadu, by a special court in Chennai for sedition on the basis of a speech he made in 2009 is the latest case of misinterpretation and misuse of a colonial era law which has no relevance in free India. The court has sentenced him to a one-year jail term. The sedition charge related to a speech he made on the occasion of the release of a book when he criticised the Government of India for its Sri Lanka policy and handling of the LTTE. The court said that his speech would have sown the seeds of disaffection and hatred towards the government. Section 124A of the IPC defines sedition as an act or words which excite disaffection against the government or bring it under hatred and contempt. 

Creating disaffection against the government cannot be a charge against a citizen in a democracy where freedom of speech and the right to criticise the government are guaranteed to the citizens and legally protected. It is easy to dub criticism of the government as creation of disaffection to raise sedition charges against critics. This is especially relevant in a milieu where the government and ruling party’s critics are labelled ‘anti-nationals’. The sedition law was created by the British colonial government in 1870 when the people had no constitutional rights like the freedom of speech and expression. Even the British government has since abolished it in the United Kingdom. Many other countries have also done away with it, as it is based on an illiberal and outmoded idea of the relationship between the citizen and the State. The provision has no place in a liberal democracy which respects the rights of its citizens and guarantees them. 

The Supreme Court has made it clear many times that a person can be charged with sedition only if there is incitement to violence in speech or writing and there is actual intent to create disorder. The Law Commission has called for a review of Section 124A, noting that “every irresponsible exercise of the right to free speech and expression’’ or “berating the country or a particular aspect of it’’ cannot be termed seditious. The Chennai court does not seem to have taken into account the Supreme Court’s views on Section 124A and the incompatibility of the provision with an open and rights-based system. This is surprising because the courts have generally underlined the value of free speech and have expanded its scope in various judgments. The Vaiko judgment shows the potential for misuse of the law and gives another reason for its abolition. 

 

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