Of late, there has been good reason for people all over the country to be concerned about the occurrence of seditious activities in different parts of India. Only the other day, there was this instance of a Pakistan flag being hoisted in Dhubri district of Assam. There would be nothing improper or objectioble if India were playing a Test series against Pakistan and the Pakistan flag was hoisted along with the Indian tricolour at every venue of the Test matches. But the defiant act of hoisting the Pakistan flag without any valid reason for doing so is a totally redundant and defiantly unpatriotic act if not an act of outright sedition. The word sedition has been defined as ‘conduct or speech inciting rebellion against the authority of a state or morch.’ It is interesting to note how close sedition gets to treason or high treason in meaning. Treason (or high treason) is the crime of betraying one’s country, especially by attempting to kill or overthrow the sovereign or government. [Incidentally, there is the expression petty treason which means the crime of murdering a master or husband.]
Given the present circumstances in India and the reference made by our Prime Minister at the G20 Summit at Hangzhou to the “one single tion” in South Asia that is spreading “agents of terror,“ it would be hardly surprising for the government not to think of making the most of the sedition law of the country to counter such treasoble acts against the government and the country. And this could make it very easy for district authorities without adequate experience of enforcing sedition laws to overdo things and thus to harden attitudes among misguided youths who have come under the influence of foreign agencies like the ISI. That is perhaps one of the reasons for the Supreme Court deciding on Monday to issue a sort of clarification to the administrative authorities to stick to the guidelines laid down by a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court 54 years ago. The other more pressing reason, of course, was complaints from several sources that sedition cases were being filed indiscrimitely to crush dissent and diverse opinions. One of them was filed by the well-known NGO, Common Cause. Another was filed by an anti-nuclear activist, S.P. Uday Kumar, who had moved the apex court seeking adequate safeguards and guidelines to prevent the sedition law being misused. His petition said that in 2014, 58 persons had been arrested and 47 cases of sedition had been booked in the country. A division bench of Justices Dipak Misra and U.U.Lalit reminded the authorities of the 1962 order (in the Kedar th vs. State of Bihar case) but declined to issue a general directive to the directors-general of police of all States and Union Territories to vet all sedition cases before registering the FIRs. “We are of the considered opinion that the authorities, while dealing with the offences under Section 124A of the Indian Pel Code (which deals with sedition), shall be guided by the principle laid down by the Constitution bench. Except saying so, we do not intend to deal with any other issue as we are of the considered opinion that it is not necessary to do so,” Justice Misra said.
Given the present scerio in the country, especially in the light of what is happening in Kashmir, it may be well worth looking at the key observations of the Supreme Court order of 1962 relating to sedition. They are: (a) Any written or spoken words which have implicit in them the idea of subverting the government by violent means have been made pel (meaning subject to pel action). (b) But strong words used to express disapprobation (strong disapproval) of the measures of the government with a view to their improvement or alteration by lawful means would not come within the section. (c) Comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of the actions of the government, without exciting those feelings which generate the inclition to cause public disorder by acts of violence, will not be pel. (d) Disloyalty to the government is not the same thing as commenting in strong terms on the measures or acts of the government, or its agencies, so as to ameliorate the conditions of the people or to secure the cancellation or alteration of those acts or measures by lawful means. Freedom is to be guarded against becoming a licence for vilification and condemtion of the government established by law in words that incite violence or have the tendency to create public disorder. (e) A citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the government or its measures, by way of criticism or comment, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder.
The observations of the Constitution bench of the Supreme Court made more than half-a-century ago are very clear pointers to what constitutes sedition and what does not. No civilized society can afford to ignore the extent of freedom that a healthy democratic system offers to its citizens. This is the right to criticise the actions of the government when they go against the best interests of the people and their legitimate rights and liberties. Unfortutely, in most young democracies there is this strong tendency to interpret the right to criticise the government as a right also to incite rebellion against it and to whip up violent riots as a consequence. There is no denying the right of citizens to criticise the actions of the government when they go against the interests of the people or to write and speak against them in the strongest terms as long as people are not goading others to rebel and to adopt violent means to achieve their goals. The limits of individual freedom and the lakshmanrekha that prevents freedom from becoming unhealthy and destructive licence must be kept in mind at all times.