Are Deliberate Attempts Being Made To Throttle Freedom Of Speech And Expression?

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-Dev Ankur Wadhawan

The recent controversy involving Amnesty International and the comment made by actor Ramya has brought sharp focus on the law governing what constitutes Sedition, as it prevails in India.

Can mere slogan – shouting be interpreted as Sedition? Is it right to charge Amnesty International with Sedition? Amnesty International has maintained that its employees did not indulge in slogan shouting at the event in question in Bengaluru and therefore, the charge of sedition was wrongfully leveled. A few persons had gathered inside the JNU campus and allegedly indulged in Anti – India sloganeering. In another curious case involving an actor – politician, named Ramya, a sedition complaint was filed in Karnataka’s Kaodagu district in a magistrate’s court. The accusation against her: saying “Pakistan is not hell, people there are like us”. The BJP has been visibly agitated by her statement, interpreting her statement as a retort to the Defence minister Manohar Parrikar, who had recently said that going to Pakistan is the same as going to hell. The sedition law had earlier come into focus even during the JNU incident.

Here is a look at what does Section 124-A of the Constitution of India, mentions:

Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.

Several legal luminaries have opined on what constitutes sedition and also pondered over whether the time has come to do away with the contents of Section 124-A, which spells it out, altogether. In the case of Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar, the Honorable Supreme Court had observed that very vigorous words, written or spoken, directed to a very strong criticism of measures of Governments or acts of public officials would be outside the scope of the section. The Court also maintained that as the custodian and guarantor of the fundamental rights of the citizens, has the duty cast upon it of striking down any law which unduly restricts the freedom of speech and expression with which we are concerned in this case.

The Court further, unequivocally states, A citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the Government, or its measures, by way of criticism or comment, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the Government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder.

The Supreme Court had dismissed the appeal against Kedar Nath Singh. The Supreme Court’s observations are clear. They fundamentally point out that a citizen is free to express oneself by means of criticism or comment, as long as there is no incitement to violence against the Government established by law or the intention of creating public disorder.

The freedom of speech and expression, as guaranteed by the Constitution under Article 19(1)(a), is not absolute and can be restricted by Section 19(2). Section 19(2) states, Nothing in sub clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

In the case of Amnesty International, the agencies may investigate what were the exact slogans that were shouted during the event and whether there was any covert or overt involvement on the part of Amnesty International.

It is for the Court to decide on the merit of a certain case. However, the Governments should also ensure that its machinery does not fall for vicious propaganda and that no deliberate attempts are made by the police to misinterpret the laws and impose certain restrictions in a manner that subverts the right of free speech and expression in a wrongful way. Any attempt to stifle the democratic ethos of India need to be thwarted so as to ensure that the freedom for which many of our freedom fighters gave away their lives is not scuttled.

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