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Berating The Country, Or A Particular Aspect Of It, Cannot And Should Not Be Treated As Sedition: Law Commission

"In a democracy, singing from the same book is not a benchmark of patriotism."

New Delhi:

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

The panel once again established the citizens’ right to freedom of speech and expression and 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,” reported The Indian Express.

“For merely expressing a thought that is not in consonance,” the panel said, “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.

The panel continued, “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 Commission also noted that in order to study revision of section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that deals with sedition, it should be taken into consideration that the United Kingdom, which introduced the section in the IPC, abolished the sedition laws ten years ago.

The UK did not want to be quoted as an example of using such “draconian” laws, it 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 right to free speech and expression was 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.

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, the paper said.

“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.

It 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 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.

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