The debate over India's sedition law was triggered after the Supreme Court granted bail to jailed rights activist Binayak Sen. The court observed that no case of sedition had been made against Sen.
Dr Binayak Sen was arrested in 2007 on charges of waging war against India in the central state of Chhattisgarh
A spirited debate has begun over the relevance of India’s 150-year old colonial era-law with civil society and rights activists arguing that antiquated sedition laws do not reflect the democratic aspirations of the country and the spirit of the Constitution.
The new thinking follows the Supreme Court’s scathing observations while releasing noted social activist Dr Binayak Sen on bail. He was charged for life imprisonment for sedition, criminal conspiracy and collusion with Maoist rebels.
Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code provides life imprisonment to those found guilty of sedition; this section was often used in the past to confine freedom fighters to jail. Law Minister Veerappa Moily said the law has lost its relevance. "In democratic aspirations and while you are on the principle of liberty, where is the place for sedition?" he added. "There has been a debate inside the country and many feel that this law of sedition has become outdated particularly after the country gained Independence."
Collusion with Maoist rebels can be punished with a life sentence
Sen’s conviction sparked a wave of outrage around the world. Forty Nobel laureates signed a letter urging his release, and activists such as Noam Chomsky have spoken out in support of him. Many saw the case as a draconian step in the Indian state’s increasing crackdown on dissents and freedom of information.
In one of many such cases, Arundhati Roy, a Booker Prize–winning author, was also charged with sedition in November 2010 over her remarks about the disputed Indian territory of Kashmir.
Supreme Court lawyer Nitya Ramakrishnan, who has actively campaigned for human rights, says the controversial section of law has to go as it violates the right to freedom of speech. "I don’t think sedition has any place in a democratic country," Ramakrishnan points out. "This section has to be removed, it cannot be an offence. Anything amounts with direct, clear and present incitement to violence or crime that is anyway an offence of abetment or conspiracy…but speech and other actions cannot be by themselves the subject of any penal offence."
While granting bail to Sen, the Supreme Court said "We are a democratic country. Sen may be a sympathizer (of Maoists) but it did not make him guilty of sedition." Law Minister Veerappa Moily detailed the next steps before him: "I am thinking that in consultation with the ministry of home, I would like to see that it is referred to the Law Commission of India and that it gets examined."
Arundhati Roy's answer to sedition charges: "Pity the nation that has to silence its writers for speaking their minds"
In Singapore, the maximum jail term for distributing a seditious publication is three years and not a life time. While in developed countries like the UK, the last prosecution for sedition occurred in 1972. By 1977, the common law offence of sedition was abolished.
Ramakrishnan thinks sedition should be addressed. "I would say what the Supreme Court’s observations are in keeping with our jurisprudence for over 50-60 years. Now the misuse of this provision has become so rampant that the issue has risen whether this section itself should be removed and sedition should be taken out of the category of a penal offence."
The big question now is how soon the Indian government will shrug itself out of its colonial past and its discriminatory laws.
Author: Murali Krishan
Editor: Sarah Berning