The right to dissent is often confused with sedition, just because a person or a group of people holds a difference in opinion than that of commonly accepted opinion does not mean that they are anti-national. India is one of the biggest and most complicated democracies in the world and the right to dissent should be an obvious idea here but unfortunately, it is curbed by the colonial era laws such as sedition which violates “Clauses (a) to (c) of Article 19(1) in Part III (Fundamental Rights) which says freedom of speech and expression”. But this “right is not absolute and comes with reasonable restrictions mentioned in article 19(2).” Recently Uttarakhand high court held that dissent suppressed under sedition law would make the democracy weakand the court also added that criticizing the government can never be sedition unless the public functionaries are criticized, democracy cannot be strengthened. It is very essential to understand that opposing governmental policies and ideas is not sedition. For the stability of the state in a democracy, the existence of dissent is almost inevitable.
What is dissent?
Dissent can be defined as “a strong difference of opinion on a particular subject, especially about an official suggestion or plan or a popular belief”. In simpler words, it is a difference in opinion. Existence Dissent is very important in a healthy democracy. It ensures that government actions and policies are regularly monitored in a way that their fundamental rights or any other legal rights are not violated. It also allows the people to check if the government is abusing its powers, the people have been given a fundamental right to protest against the government peacefully. They can assemble peacefully without arms and could also form associations or unions. However, “Article 19(2) empowers the government the right to impose reasonable limits on the right to freedom of speech and expression in the interest of power and the trustworthiness of the state, the safety of the State, good relations with international states, public peace and order, decency or morality or in relation to violation of law, defamation or incitement to an offence.” A citizen has the right to criticize and give opinions against the government as long as it does not have a bad intention and does not urge people to fight against the government with violence.
What is sedition?
Section 124A of IPC defines sedition as follows:
“Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by noticeable portrayal, or any other way, 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 fine or imprisonment for life, that can be extended to up to three years, to which fine may be added”.
Interpretation 1 – The expression ‘disaffection’ means hostility and the quality of a traitor.
Interpretation 2 – Showing dissatisfaction with the government policies and wanting to bring change in a lawfully and peacefully manner without disturbing public order, does not constitute a crime under section 124A.
Interpretation3 – comments or opinions which show a difference in opinion and bring the government or its administration or its functioning in a bad light without inciting people to violence against the government is not considered an offence.
Section124Aof IPC was drafted in the 17th century by Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay and included in IPC in 1870. The main motive of bringing sedition law was to curb dissent and liberal views of the people against the government. The said offence is cognizable, non-bailable, and non-compoundable. The said law was used by Britishers in the pre-independence era to convict and punish anyone who goes against the government, the main targets were the freedom fighters of India. It was first used to prosecute Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1897.
The constitutional validity of sedition law
In Kedarnath Singh v. State of Bihar the apex court of India upheld the constitutionality and validity of the sedition law but limited its working to “acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder, or disturbance of law and order, or incitement to violence”. The apex court also said that the law cannot be used to curb free and fair speech. The constitutional bench also stated that the law can only be invoked in cases where it is proved that act which result in violence among masses and such act has dismantled public order.
In Balwant Singh v. State of Punjab, 1995, Balwant Singh was charged under sedition for raising slogans, the apex court held that no charges can be invoked on raising slogans that do not incite people to violence.
Sedition can not be invoked in the following acts:
- Strong slogans or any other kind of expression which shows disapprobation towards government policies, acts, or actions.
- Showing dissatisfaction towards government initiatives through lawful methods.
- to better the situation of the people or to ensure the change of those acts through legal methods rather than by acts that involve malice and have the potential to disturb the public order.
‘Article 14’, a civil society organization launched its sedition database in May 2021, analyzing all the sedition cases between January 2010 to December 2020. “Six sedition cases during the farm protests; 25 during anti-CAA protests; 22 after the Hathras gangrape; 27 after Pulwama: the study of cases gives a result that says that 28% rise in such cases were infringing the apex court guidelines since 2014”.] “The recent reports which are based on the data of NCRB (National Crime RecordBureau) say that from 2016 to 2019 the cases filed under section 124A of sedition law have increased to 160 per cent, while the conviction rate has been dropped to 3.3 % in 2019 from 33.3% in 2016.”
The majority of people who were accused and charged under sedition law were the people protesting against the government guidelines and certain decisions of the government, this shows how the government is misusing the very law and curbing the right to dissent of the citizens of India. They do not deserve to be charged under such draconian law just for expressing their difference in opinion and to suffer through the process of this law as the accusation under this law is in itself a punishment. Whether it be the farm protest, the toolkit case, the republic protest, the citizenship amendment act protest, Vinod dua case, or any other case people can not be charged or put behind bars just because they are protecting their rights, exercising their right to dissent, or have different views on government policies. It is evident from the above data that sedition law is being invoked more than ever and it is not being misused but abused.
India today as one of the biggest democracies in the world should overthrow its narrow-minded approach towards handling constructive criticism and should declare sedition law as unconstitutional or make amendments as it is extreme in nature, curb dissent of people towards their government, violates people fundamental right to speech and expression, and also brings instability in the state because of its very nature. Disaffection towards governmental policies does not certainly mean disaffection towards the government. Every person has the right to form opinions of their own can express their dissatisfaction therefore they should not be called or treated as anti-national or traitors. Dissent is essential in the proper functioning of the democratic form of government. The Indian judiciary and legislature should take proper actions and initiatives so that people’s rights can be protected and they can express their opinion in a free manner without the fear of being prosecuted by draconian laws like sedition.
Author(s) Name: Anukriti Jain (Nirma University Ahmedabad)
Umesh kumarsharma v. state of uttrakhand and another,(2020) W.P. Crl. 1182
Section 124A of Indian Penal Code, 1860
Bal Gangadhar Tilak v. Queen-Empress, I.L.R. 1898 (22) Bom 528
Kedarnath Singh v. the State of Bihar AIR 955.
Balwant Singh v. the State of Punjab,  (1) SCR 411.
 Kunal Purohit ‘Our New Database Reveals Rise In Sedition Cases In The Modi Era’(02 February 2021)<https://www.article-14.com/post/our-new-database-reveals-rise-in-sedition cases-in-the-modi-era> updated on 23 may 2021.