Law Commission: ‘Speaking against govt is not sedition, right to offend, criticise history is free speech’

Justice (retired) B S Chauhan said that the stringent sedition law should be invoked only in cases “where intention” behind the act is to “disrupt public order or to overthrow the Government with violence and illegal means”.

Written by Kaunain Sheriff M | New Delhi | Updated: August 31, 2018 7:42:23 am
Law Commission, sedition, sedition charge, Narendra Modi Govt, dissent, sedition, right to offend, sedition cases in India, JNU, free speech, Justice Balbir Singh Chauhan, indian express Justice (retd) Balbir Singh Chauhan

Underlining that “singing from the same book is not a benchmark of patriotism” in a democracy and “people should be at liberty to show their affection towards their country in their own way”, the Law Commission has said that a person should not be charged with sedition for “merely expressing a thought that is not in consonance with the policy of the Government of the day”.

In a consultation paper on the sedition law (124A IPC) — in which it has spelt out multiple issues that require wider discussion — the Law Commission, headed by Justice (retired) B S Chauhan, has said that the stringent sedition law should be invoked only in cases “where intention” behind the act is to “disrupt public order or to overthrow the Government with violence and illegal means”.

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“The Commission hopes a healthy debate will take place among the legal luminaries, lawmakers, Government and non-Government agencies, academia, students and above all, the general public, on the above issues, so that a public-friendly amendment could be brought about,” the panel said in its paper

Defending the right to freedom of speech and expression, the panel said: “In a democracy, singing from the same book is not a benchmark of patriotism. People should be at liberty to show their affection towards their country in their own way. For doing the same, one might indulge in constructive criticism or debates, pointing out the loopholes in the policy of the Government. Expressions used in such thoughts might be harsh and unpleasant to some, but that does not render the actions to be branded seditious. Section 124A should be invoked only in cases where the intention behind any act is to disrupt public order or to overthrow the Government with violence and illegal means.”

Every irresponsible exercise of right to free speech and expression, the panel said, cannot be termed seditious. “For merely expressing a thought that is not in consonance with the policy of the Government of the day, a person should not be charged under the section. Expression of frustration over the state of affairs, for instance, calling India ‘no country for women’, or a country that is ‘racist’ for its obsession with skin colour as a marker of beauty are critiques that do not ‘threaten’ the idea of a nation. Berating the country, or a particular aspect of it, cannot and should not be treated as sedition,” the panel said.

“If the country is not open to positive criticism, there lies little difference between the pre- and post-independence eras. Right to criticise one’s own history and the right to ‘offend’ are rights protected under free speech. While it is essential to protect national integrity, it should not be misused as a tool to curb free speech. Dissent and criticism are essential ingredients of a robust public debate on policy issues as part of vibrant democracy. Therefore, every restriction on free speech and expression must be carefully scrutinised to avoid unwarranted restrictions,” the panel said.

Seeking answers to the crucial question of amending the sedition law, the Commission laid out ten issues. “Should sedition be not redefined in a country like India, the largest democracy of the world, considering that right to free speech and expression is an essential ingredient of democracy ensured as a Fundamental Right by our Constitution?” it said.

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