Centre for Internet & Society

Words, whether spoken or shouted, that question or even malign the government cannot be labelled as sedition, unless they specifically incite violence, lawyers and human rights experts familiar with fundamental rights and sedition laws have said.

The article was published in the Telegraph on February 18, 2016

The experts say courts hearing allegations of sedition would be expected to analyse the context and intent to determine whether actions claimed by the prosecution as sedition fit its definition under the Indian Penal Code#(IPC) and various Supreme Court rulings.

Under Section 124A of the IPC, "whoever by words.... or by signs or visible representation or otherwise brings or attempts to bring into hatred, contempt or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India" may be punished. The section defines disaffection as "disloyalty and all feelings of enmity", but clarifies that comments that express even strong disapproval of government actions through lawful means without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt, or disaffection are not an offence.

"It is not the actions alone that count, they have to be seen along with the mental ingredients behind those actions - it is the motive that determines the character of the actions," N.R. Madhava Menon, honorary professor at Bangalore's National Law School, told The Telegraph.

"The court would be expected to examine the facts and the evidence presented," he said. "It would ask questions such as, is there evidence for a conspiracy, who was behind the actions, was it an organised event, was it intended to subvert a legally established government?"

Experts say Supreme Court rulings over the decades have narrowed the scope of the sedition law. In a 1995 judgment, the court held that casual raising of slogans by individuals cannot be held as exciting or attempting to excite hatred or disaffection towards the government.

The court has ruled that only speeches intended to create disorder or disturbance or call for resorting to violence could be punishable under the section, said Ravi Nair, executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, New Delhi.

In a 1962 judgment, the Supreme Court had limited the scope of Section 124A to incitement to violence or fostering public disorder, Gautam Bhatia, a Delhi-based lawyer and author of Offend, Shock, or Disturb, a book on free speech under the Indian Constitution has pointed out.

In a report for the non-government Centre for Internet and Society, Bhatia said other Supreme Court rulings had clarified#that that there needed to be a "direct and imminent degree of proximity" between the speech and expression and the breach of public order, and that the relation between the two should be like a "spark in a powder keg".

"Something the court has clearly rejected is the argument that it is permissible to criminalise speech and expression simply because its content might lower the authority of the government in the eyes of the public which, in turn, could foster a disrespect for law and the state, and lead to breaches of public order," Bhatia wrote.Human rights analysts point out historical episodes in other countries where citizens have expressed intense opposition to government actions, without having charges of sedition filed against them.

"The protests in the US against the Vietnam War during the late 1960s and protests in the UK against the Falkland War in 1982 or more recently British involvement in the Gulf war are examples," Nair said. "Supreme Court rulings in India have narrowed the scope of the section on sedition to cover only actions that actually call for violence."

Nair said sedition should be seen as an anachronism in any mature democracy. India's sedition law was written during British rule, but the UK abolished its own sedition and seditious libel law in 2009.

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