Supreme Court sends govt clear signal

The Supreme Court of India deserves unreserved praise for its decision to dismiss a sedition petition against former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah with a fine of Rs 50,000. The Bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Hemant Gupta has laid down a much-needed norm when it ordered that dissent is not sedition.
Regardless of whether the litigation was inspired or not by the forces that be, the truth is freedom of speech in a democracy is being challenged every day. There is a clear pattern to be seen behind offence being taken at every turn at any view expressed that runs contrary to the rigid opinions of the majoritarians who are quite willing to be at odds with India’s tradition of tolerance and pluralism. Unfortunately, the colonial-era law, which says that ‘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 shall be punished with imprisonment for life’, still remains as Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code. None of the founding fathers or the subsequent liberal governments found this vague and draconian provision distasteful enough to get it removed from the statute book. Hence, the constitutional court’s order assumes the status of a touchstone for the legality of the application of 124 A.
“The expression of a view which is dissent from a decision taken by the Central Government itself cannot be said to be seditious. There is nothing in the statement which we find so offensive as to… initiate proceedings,” said SC, while fining the petitioners Rs 50,000 for frivolous litigation.  But the wastage of judicial time, and more importantly at a personal and political level, the harassment of individuals and silencing of dissent must prompt SC to reexamine the infirmity of sedition in light of frequent undermining of the fundamental right to dissent.
The learned judges have made it clear that dissent or disagreement with the decisions of the Central government is not sedition. So, Disha Ravi and Farooq Abdullah cannot be prosecuted simply because they do not agree with the government on farm laws or the abrogation of Article 370. There is no democracy without dissent and debate. The court has correctly identified the petitioners’ attempt as ‘publicity interest litigation’, and by imposing the fine it has sent a cautionary message out to frivolous and politically motivated litigants.

- -Prabhakar Purandare

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