Chitranshul Sinha discusses about the sedition law in the country in an interview with Abhish K. Bose
Chitranshul Sinha is an Advocate-on-Record of the Supreme Court of India with experience in civil and commercial litigation. He practices Insolvency & Bankruptcy Law, Arbitration, Banking & Commercial Litigation, and general Civil Litigation. He regularly appears before the Supreme Court of India, High Court of Delhi and various other State High Courts, various National Company Law Tribunals, National Company Law Appellate Tribunal, arbitral tribunals and other fora. Chitranshul is the author of ‘The Great Repression – Story of Sedition in India’ published by Penguin India in 2019. He is a member of the Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association, Delhi High Court Bar Association and Young International Council for Commercial Arbitration. In an interview with Abhish K. Bose he discusses the abuse of sedition law in the country.
Excerpts from the interview
Abhish K. Bose : The Manipur police has slapped sedition charges on CPI leader Annie Raja. The case was filed in Imphal after Raja raised allegations that the riots in Manipur were sponsored by the state. Along with Raja, two other leaders from the National Federation of Indian Women have also been booked. Ms Raja made the statement after a fact finding team, of which she was a member, visited the state. Do you think the charges against Ms. Raja will stand legal scrutiny? If it does, what is the margin left for the right to dissent in a democracy?
Chitranshul : No, the charges are not likely to stick. However that does not stop the police from arresting or harassing her and others like her. Thanks to the Supreme Court order of May 2022 even if the police register an FIR against her she will be granted bail by the jurisdictional magistrate. Nowadays it depends on who you are for the State to decide whether you have a right to dissent or not. It is easier for the State to curb this right if the concerned people are from marginalised communities.
Abhish K. Bose : Do you think that sedition laws are used to whittle down the scope of freedom of the press? Instances like the action of the Kerala police in arraigning a TV channel reporter for reporting a political allegation by a student leader during a live telecast as well as sedition cases against journalist Siddique Kappan and Stan Swamy may be cited in this context. Do such cases belong to the category, ‘the process is the punishment’? How can media freedom be exercised in the face of this State intolerance?
Chitranshul : Sedition laws are not just used to curb freedom of press, but the larger right to free speech and expression. Today if any reporting is inconvenient for the establishment, it is prosecuted and persecuted as something which is against the integrity of the State. Surely, reporting on a gangrape like Kappan, or making political allegations cannot bring down the State. Importantly, it is not just one political party which is abusing the law. Almost every party is guilty of trying to curb media freedom. Even crude humour against a politician has been turned into a prosecutable offence in some states.
Abhish K. Bose : By invoking sedition charges against political speeches and criticism on government cannot be justified. According to the constitution, it specifies that the provisions of sedition can be used only at speeches or actions that may harm the security of the state. Those speeches which perpetuates social or political discourse doesn’t comes under the purview of this and the alibi of the security of the state cannot be invoked. How can the genuine political speech or writings can be healthily discriminated from the state security alibi?
Chitranshul : The test for invocation of section 124A of IPC is whether the alleged seditious speech or publication has incited violence, or has the tendency to incite violence or public disorder. Considering that the section is part of the chapter which provides for offence against the State, such offence must be targeted at the State, and not merely an individual or political party. While the Supreme Court has laid down the above mentioned public order test for invocation of section 124A, I believe that the Court has not explicitly laid down the parameters of the test and thus has left it open to be broadly interpreted and applied by the police. As long as a political speech or publication does not call for violence or a violent uprising against the State there should be no question of application of section 124A.
Abhish K Bose : Section 124A of the IPC on which the sedition law is based is a colonial era law meant to forestall and suppress anti-Colonial activities by Indians. Shouldn’t it have been revoked or junked with the liberation of India from the colonial yoke? How can its continued use by an Indian government against its own citizens be justified even in the light of patriotism and nationalism?
Chitranshul : Yes, the sedition law does not belong in a democratic country like ours. In fact even Nehru was against the provision, having been its victim at the hands of the British, but he failed to repeal it. Even England, which is the originator of the law, has repealed the law of sedition. Therefore, its continued existence under Indian Law is unjustifiable. However, the government does not seem to agree and the new Bill which proposes to replace the IPC provides for an even more draconian sedition law under clause 150 of the Bill, which has broadened the scope of the law, and increased the period of imprisonment as compared to section 124A.
Abhish K. Bose : The disqualification of Rahul Gandhi as member of the Lok Sabha occurred in March this year after a court convicted and sentenced him for two-year imprisonment on charges of criminal defamation on the basis of the comments in the course of a speech in the context of elections in Karnataka. Do this conviction and its consequential action by the Parliament Secretariat meet, in your opinion, the ends of justice? Or, is this a case of judicial overreach? Is there not a need to review defamation laws so as to make them more responsive to the fundamental right of freedom of thought and expression?
Chitranshul : As the law stands, Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification after having received a 2 year sentence cannot be found fault with legally. But the way that the sentence was imposed without any application of judicial mind or basis for the maximum sentence appears to be contrary to principles of natural justice. Even the Supreme Court while staying the judgment has said as much. While the Supreme Court has upheld the offence of criminal defamation, I believe that the position needs to be re-looked at by the Court. An aggrieved party can always sue for defamation in a civil court and seek damages, so the continuation of the offence of criminal defamation is not justifiable in a country where the limits of free speech when tested on the altar of politics are very high. Otherwise it will be very easy for the party in power to attack the opposition by filing complaints for criminal defamation to give a chilling effect on free political speech.