Disagreeing With Govt Not Sedition; People Have the Right to Criticise: Law Commission

"Sedition charges can only be invoked where the intention behind any act is to overthrow the government with violence and illegal means."

New Delhi: Criticising the country or a particular aspect of it cannot be treated as “sedition” and the charge  of sedition can only be invoked in cases where the intention is to overthrow the government with violence and illegal means, the Law Commission has observed in a consultation paper on the subject.

The commission, headed by Justice (retired) B.S. Chauhan, also noted that in order to study the revision of Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that deals with sedition, it should be taken into consideration that the UK abolished the sedition laws ten years ago. India’s sedition law was formulated under the British government.

The UK did not want to be quoted as an example of using such “draconian” laws, the commission observed.

The consultation paper also toyed with the idea of redefining sedition in a country like India, the largest democracy in the world, considering that the right to free speech and expression is an essential ingredient of democracy that has been ensured as a fundamental right by the constitution.

“Berating the country or a particular aspect of it, cannot and should not be treated as sedition. 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,” the consultation paper said.

The paper argued that merely expressing a thought that is not in consonance with the policy of the government of the day, should not attract the charge of sedition.

“Sedition charges can only be invoked where the intention behind any act is to overthrow the government with violence and illegal means,” it observed.

The paper also cited examples of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, who was charged with sedition over the alleged anti-India slogans on the campus.

The Law Commission has added that while it was 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 a vibrant democracy, it observed, and therefore, every restriction on free speech and expression must be carefully scrutinised to avoid unwarranted restrictions.

The Indian Express quoted the panel as saying, “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.”

The commission also hoped that a healthy debate takes place in the country among the legal luminaries, lawmakers, government and non-government agencies, academia, students and the general public on the topic, so that a public-friendly amendment could be brought about.

(With PTI inputs)