As citizens, Indians have the right to criticise the government, and criticism cannot be construed as sedition, Justice Deepak Gupta of Supreme Court said on Saturday, adding that stifling such criticism will make us a police state.
Clarifying at the onset of his speech — on “Sedition and freedom of expression” — that views expressed are his own as an individual, and not as a Supreme Court judge, Justice Gupta said, “Criticism of the executive, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the armed forces cannot be termed sedition. If we stifle criticism of these institutions, we shall become a police state instead of a democracy.”
He said, “For me, there is a very important right which is not spelt out in the Constitution… the right of freedom of opinion, the right of freedom of conscience, by themselves, include the most important right — the right to dissent. Every society has its own rules, and over a period of time, when people stick to only age-old rules and conventions, the society degenerates; it doesn’t develop.”
He continued, “New thinkers are born when they disagree with well-accepted norms of the society. If everybody follows the well-trodden path, no new paths will be created and no new vistas of the mind will be found. If a person doesn’t ask questions and raise issues questioning age-old systems, no new systems will develop and horizons of the mind will not expand…. New thoughts and religious practices have developed only when they have questioned the old.”
Therefore, the judge said, “don’t ever give up on inquisitiveness. Always question — ‘why this belief? Why not something new?’ Only then, the society will develop.”
Justice Gupta was in Ahmedabad to address a workshop of lawyers on the topic of “Law of sedition in India and the Freedom of Expression”, organised by the Praleen Public Charitable Trust and Justice P D Desai Memorial Lecture Committee at Gujarat Law Society on Saturday.
He said that in a secular country such as India, a non-believer, an atheist, an agnostic, ritualistic or a spiritualist person all have the right to expression. “When you talk of dissent, who can forget Justice H R Khanna in the habeas corpus case. That dissent is more important than any decision that may have come before or after it. Today, it is the rule of law.”
In the case he referred to, a five-member bench was adjudicating on the matter of those detained during the Emergency in 1975, and Justice Khanna was the lone dissenter, while the four other judges in the bench allowed unrestricted powers of detention during the Emergency
Emphasising the importance of freedom to criticise all institutions, Justice Gupta said, “We have the right to criticise the government in power, whichever government it may be. The misuse of the sedition law is against the very principle that our freedom fighters fought for.”
Maintaining that those in power have to “develop thick skins”, he said, “They can’t be oversensitive to people who make fun of them. Humour is a very vital part of our life. Parliament has become a battle of loudest of voice and not battle of wits…. We all have to be open to criticism. The judiciary is not above criticism and I welcome introspection within the judiciary. If we look within ourselves. That is the only way we can improve.”
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