Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter
-Martin Luther King Jr.
Right to free speech including right to dissent is the epitome of a democratic institution. There is a thin line between right to criticism and making statements with the mindset of inciting violence against the government (offense of sedition). These two thoughts are rather two sides of a balancing beam (wherein the balance is unfortunately always tilted in favor of the authorities). Criticism has always been a hard pill to swallow (especially when you become accustomed to zero opposition). Thus, the Indian governments have from time immemorial used draconian laws to subdue any unfavorable ideologies by portraying the same as anti-nationalist or radical elements. It is extremely disheartening to see how the police (supposedly the guardian of the common man) has been deflecting from their duty and been sidetracked through political inclinations and vendetta into increasing malicious prosecutions. One can draw an analogy of the working of police in modern times to Beria’s hideous and autocratic police under Stalin. One of the most recent instances highlighting the same is the case of Munawar Faruqui. Munawar, a stand-up comedian was arrested by the police only based on hearsay evidence (complainant was a BJP MLA’s son) for a comedy act that had attempted to hurt religious sentiments (emphasis must be laid to the fact that the said act had not been performed). It is pertinent to note that the police failed to follow the Arnesh Kumar test, specific arrest guidelines laid down by SC in the case of Arnesh Kumar v. State of Bihar, in the Munawar case and this was thus a gross misuse of power.
It is in these circumstances that people turn to the justice system as their savior to seek relief against these biased allegations. That the people believe that the judiciary will rise to the occasion and protect their fundamental right to freedom of expression as enshrined under Article 19 of the Constitution. The courts have indeed given a restrictive interpretation to these laws by stating that mere criticism of the government is not sedition unless it is an incitement to violence or breach of public order. Right from Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar (way back in 1962) to the famous (rather infamous) Disha Ravi case, the courts have upheld the supremacy of people as against the state in a democracy. Ravi’s case (another case of arrest based on flimsy evidence) brought into the limelight some important issues including the scope of freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right, right to mobilizing support and espousing a cause of national importance, freedom of interaction with people of suspicious character and of course right to protest. It was indeed remarkable to see how the Delhi Trial Court while granting bail had clarified the judiciary’s stance upon unnecessary impediments to freedom of speech and expression. Some mention-worthy observations from the judgment are:
- mere engagement with people of dubious credentials is not a crime as long as it remains within the four corners of law,
- to prove sedition there must be either actual violence or incitement to violence associated with the words,
- there should be no geographical barriers to freedom of speech as given under Article 19 and the same includes the right to seek a global audience
According to National Crime Records Bureau, sedition cases have jumped up by 165% with 93 cases being reported in the year 2019 itself. Another amusing fact is that the target of these cases is indeed the elite and educated section of the society including Journalists, academicians, activists, students, opposition leaders, and authors amongst others. It is daunting to see how such repressive laws which control public opinion are still accepted in a country where once the words ‘Where the mind is without Fear’ had originated.
This post was written by Muskan, IIIrd year