Vinod Dua Case Analysis: How Sedition Laws are Still Used to Stifle Political Dissent and Fair Criticism

Abstract

In India Section 124-A which governs the laws against the offence of sedition has been rampantly used by the numerous Central and State governments to suppress fair criticism and political dissent by journalists. This has been at work blatantly since the independence of the country. Laws such as this are a huge impediment to the working of democracy in the country. They also violate the fundamental right to freedom of speech granted to every citizen of the country which includes fair criticism of the government. In this article the author tries to analyze the different occasions on which Section 124-A has been abused by different governments of the country. Then the author the stance of the judiciary of the country on the fair use of Section 124-A. Lastly the author suggests some measures which can be taken by the Apex Court in order to prevent the misuse of Sedition law.

INTRODUCTION

In India, there is an axiomatic actuality that if there is a law that has the potential to be abused, then it will be abused flagrantly. This can be very well inferred from the law relating to the offence of sedition, which has been misused by successive political regimes to stifle fair criticism and political dissent by the journalists, intellectuals and the general public.

The misapplication of the Section 124-A, which outlaws activities promoting sedition in the country has been a harsh reality of our nation. This law has often been abused by governments or its agencies on the pretext of safeguarding the unity and integrity of the nation. Every citizen has a freedom of speech and expression under Art.19(1)(a) of the Constitution which includes fair criticism of the law or any executive action[1]. But Section 124-A has been used particularly to curtail this fundamental right and free speech granted by it.

CHARGES FILED AGAINST VINOD DUA

The most recent case of abuse of sedition law has been the string of FIRs filed against veteran journalist Vinod Dua in various cities of the country, the most prominent among them being the one filed in Shimla by a BJP leader Ajay Shyam Vill on June 6, 2020[2]. The complainant had complained that Dua made bizarre and unfounded allegations on the Modi Government in handling the Coronavirus pandemic in a video published on March 30, 2020 on the Youtube platform. The FIR stated that the rumors were spread with an intent to cause or likely to cause fear to the public or to any section of public whereby any person may be induced to commit offence against the State or against public tranquility. It also declared that Mr. Dua had stated in his show that PM Modi had garnered votes through the acts of terrorism[3]. He had been charged under sections 124A (sedition), 268 (public nuisance), 501 (printing matter known to be defamatory) and 505 (statements conducive to public mischief)[4].

An FIR was also filed separately in New Delhi against Mr. Dua for allegedly misreporting destructive and violent communal clashes in the Capital. This was filed by a spokesperson of BJP Mr. Naveen Kumar who indicted the journalist for spreading false news through his show on Youtube. The complainant also stated that Mr. Dua had said that the Modi Government had done nothing to stop the communal violence in New Delhi[5].

Meanwhile, Mr. Dua filed a petition in the Apex Court for quashing the FIRs against him. The Supreme Court decided that the petition was be disposed of on 15th July and extended to the journalist protection for arrest in the meantime[6].All these FIRs were condemned by the various association such as Indian Journalists Union and Editor’s Guild while calling them “a brazen attack on the free speech”[7] and “an obvious intimidation of media”[8].

Such intimidation and obstruction of the work of journalists who are only exercising their right to free speech by engaging in constructive criticism of the government is the reason why it has become pertinent for us to analyze why the abuse of laws relating to offences against the state, particularly the law penalizing sedition have become such a glaring problem in the working of democracy in India.

AMBIT OF SECTION 124-A

Sedition, encoded in Section 124-A was added to the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 1870. This section mainly penalizes those acts, visible representations and words of individuals which brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India[9]. Disaffection includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity. However, comments without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, will not constitute an offence under this section[10].

VIEW OF THE JUDICIARY REGARDING SECTION 124-A

Now what words and acts bring hatred or contempt against the government has evidently been at the choice of the government of the day. Different governments have been using this section at their discretion while attempting to trample upon the freedom of speech of their subjects who were, at most of the time fairly criticizing the government for the better. At numerous occasions both the Supreme Court and High Courts of this country have elucidated that only those words and acts which have the tendency to subvert the government, established by law by violent means will come within the ambit of this section. In other words, disloyalty to Government established by law is not the same thing as commenting in strong terms upon the measures or acts of Government, or its agencies, so as to ameliorate the condition of the people or to secure the cancellation or alteration of those acts or measures by lawful means, that is to say, without exciting those feelings of enmity and disloyalty which imply excitement to public disorder or the use of violence[11]. Comments which are aimed at expressing criticism and disapprobation of the administrative policies or activities of the Government without attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection are not to be considered as offenses under this section[12]. In the case of Romesh Thapar vs. State of Madras[13] the SC held that the fact that word ‘sedition’ was deleted from Article 13(2) of the Constitution also endorses the notion that that criticism of Government exciting disaffection or bad feelings towards it is not to be regarded as a justifying ground for restricting the freedom of expression and of the press, unless it is such as to undermine the security or tend to overthrow the state. Another pertinent view has been presented by the Judicial Commissioner of Manipur in the case of Sagolsem Indramani Singh v The State[14] when it was held that section 124-A was ultra vires only to the extent it penalizes exciting mere disaffection or attempting to excite disaffection.

This has been the approach of the judiciary of the country in commenting upon the exercise of section 124-A of the IPC. However, the use of the provision by the governments has been far from what the judiciary has declared it to be. They have been used by both Central and State governments to stifle political dissent. While the scope of Section 124-A has been limited by the Supreme Court in various judgments (at the same time, its constitutionality has been upheld), successive Central and State governments have continued to frame charges against journalist, media persons, human rights activists and pretty much against anyone who dares to manifest dissent[15]. Examples of this include sedition charges slapped against an Ahmedabad-based journalist Dhaval Patel who published an article stating that due to failure of Vijay Rupani’s government in containing the corona virus spread, there will be a change in the leadership of Gujarat government[16] and Kamal Shukla, a cartoonist from Kanker district in Chattisgarh who shared a cartoon on Facebook related to the Supreme Court’s observations on the alleged mysterious death of judge BH Loya[17].

Such has been the embezzlement of the draconian section 124-A which has been and will be used by the authorities and functionaries of government in an extra-constitutional way if not checked. The Supreme Court must lay down clear guidelines as to what constitutes sedition and what does not. Because drunk-on-power politicians and the law enforcement agencies, working to please their political masters, will continue to ignore settled law on sedition. And this farce will flourish because the courts, including the Supreme Court, will continue refusing to administer even a rap on the knuckles to the erring police officers.

CONCLUSION

In Dua’s case, the Supreme Court has an opportunity to re-evaluate its judgments in Kedar Nath Singh versus State of Bihar, delivered nearly five decades ago, and Balwant Singh and another versus State of Punjab, delivered over 15 years ago. It must issue stringent, legally binding guidelines to ensure the government and its agents – both within and outside the system – aren’t able to browbeat free media and dissenting voices by foisting sedition charges on them.

It is the court’s constitutional duty to ensure that between the citizen and the State, the scales of justice are always tilted in favour of the citizen when it comes to protecting the voice.

Most importantly, it needs to reassure the citizens, since the government is never going to do it, that “comments expressing disapprobation (disapproval, for want of a better word) of the administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection”, do not constitute an offence under Sedition.

[1] Baldev Singh Gandhi vs. State of Punjab and others. 2002 SCC 3 (667)

[2] ‘No stay on sedition case against Vinod Dua’-The Telegraph Online.  https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/no-stay-on-sedition-case-against-veteran-journalist-vinod-dua/cid/1780964

[3] ‘Vinod Dua case- Hand over complete records of investigation, SC tells Himachal police’, the Hindu https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/vinod-dua-case-hand-over-complete-records-of-investigation-sc-tells-himachal-police/article32010872.ece

[4] Apoorva Mandhani, ‘SC refuses to stay sedition FIRs against Vinod Dua but grants relief from arrest until 6 July’, ThePrint.  https://theprint.in/judiciary/sc-refuses-to-stay-sedition-firs-against-vinod-dua-but-grants-relief-from-arrest-until-6-july/441388/

[5] ‘Vinod Dua gets interim protection from arrest in sedition case, SC refuses to stay investigation’ the Scroll.https://scroll.in/latest/964648/vinod-dua-gets-interim-protection-from-arrest-in-sedition-case-sc-refuses-to-stay-investigation

[6] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/vinod-dua-case-hand-over-complete-records-of-investigation-sc-tells-himachal-police/article32010872.ece

[7] https://scroll.in/latest/964133/editors-guild-criticises-fir-against-journalist-vinod-dua-calls-it-a-brazen-attack-on-free-speech

[8]  ‘Indian Journalists’ Union condemns FIRs against journalists Vinod Dua, Vivek Mishra, Ajay Bhadauria’ https://scroll.in/latest/964315/indian-journalists-union-condemns-firs-against-journalists-vinod-dua-vivek-mishra-ajay-bhadauria

[9] Section 124-A, Indian Penal Code 1860

[10] ‘Use and misuse of Sedition law: Section 124A of IPC’ https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/gk-current-affairs/story/use-and-misuse-of-sedition-law-section-124a-of-ipc-divd-1607533-2019-10-09

[11] Kedar Singh vs. State of Bihar (1962 AIR 955)

[12] Syed Abdur Rahman vs. State represented by the Inspector of Police Special Investigation Team

[13] AIR 1950 SC 124

[14] A.I.R. 1955 Man. 9.

[15] ‘Disaffection’ and the Law: The Chilling Effect of Sedition Laws in India, Siddhant Narain Economic and Political Weekly, FEBRUARY 19-25, 2011, Vol. 46, No. 8 (FEBRUARY 19-25, 2011), pp. 33-37

[16] Priyanka Sharma, “Ahmedabad Journalist Charged With ‘sedition’ By Gujarat Police” India Today.

[17] Chhattisgarh journalist Kamal Shukla booked for sedition after sharing cartoon on Facebook on judge BH Loya’s death, First Post. https://www.firstpost.com/india/chhattisgarh-journalist-kamal-shukla-booked-for-sedition-after-sharing-cartoon-on-facebook-on-judge-bh-loyas-death-4456465.html

About Author – This article has been written by Abhiraam Shukla (Author is a student of National Law Institute University, Bhopal and is currently in 2nd year (Batch of 2019-2024). He has previously published articles in the fields of International Maritime Law, Constitutional Law, and Criminal Law. He has interests in IPR, Alternative Dispute Resolutions and Constitutional Law and has done various distance courses of the same.)

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