Digital India’s dichotomy: Denying digital dissent

Sedition: Price of free speech in India

Society

June 9, 2021

/ By Palak Chawla / New Delhi

Digital India’s dichotomy: Denying digital dissent

Recent statistics show 96 pc of sedition cases, filed since 2014, were on grounds of making “critical” or “derogatory” remarks against PM Narendra Modi & UP CM Yogi Adityanath (MIG Photos)

In blatant crackdown on free speech in the country, there has been a flagrant rise in attempts by the government to have social media and internet companies delete critical posts. The government is also increasingly applying draconian laws like sedition against its critics.

In the pre-colonial era, British introduced section 124 (A) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) covering sedition to curb the freedom movement and to suppress dissent. The first person to be tried under this law was Jogendra Chandra Bose, editor of a newspaper called Bangobasi, in 1891, for publishing an article criticising Age of Consent bill that raised the minimum age for sexual intercourse for a girl from 10 to 12 years.

Unfortunately, 120 years after Jogendra Chandra Bose’s trial and 75 years after Indian independence, not much has changed in terms of government misusing sedition laws in India. Indeed, over the past few years, blatant abuse of the law governing sedition has risen sharply. Take for instance, case of climate change activist Disha Ravi who was arrested under Section124A of the IPC in February 2021, for trying to create awareness of the farmers’ protest and gather global support for is a testament to that.

A very vague definition of what constitutes sedition has given the government a chance to misuse it at will. The section states that any spoken, written or other signs and visual representations made in attempt to bring into hatred or attempt to excite disaffection towards the government established by law would be punishable under sedition. Hiding behind these broad-brush definitions, the Centre has applied this law at will in the flimsiest of cases and especially tried to muzzle journalists and civil society activists.

“Sedition is an archaic, colonial era offence which must be entirely repealed. In the past, the Supreme Court has tried to curb misuse of sedition by clarifying that incitement to violence is a necessary ingredient of the offence,” Devdutta Mukhopadhyay, an independent lawyer working on free speech issues in India, tells Media India Group.

Recent statistics under Article 14, a website jointly managed by lawyers, journalists and academics which provides intensive research and reportage, data and varied perspectives, show that 96pc of sedition cases, filed against 405 Indian citizens since 2014, were on grounds of making “critical” and/or “derogatory” remarks against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

Misuse of sedition by government

Ever since the Modi government took charge in 2014, sedition, one of the harshest laws in the country, has repeatedly been misused by the central government to arrest citizens expressing disapproval of government over social media.

In 2020, senior journalist Vinod Dua was booked under same law for commenting on the mishandling of the pandemic by the government, while in August 2016, police arrested a Kashmiri engineer on the grounds of sedition just for liking and posting a series of Facebook posts which called for India to withdraw from Kashmir.

In a similar case in December 2016, police charged a Malayali writer and theatre artiste with sedition for allegedly insulting the National Anthem via excerpts from his book that were posted on Facebook.

“In practice, sedition continues to be used by the ruling establishment to threaten citizens who criticise the government and its actions. In the context of the Indian criminal justice system, the process is the punishment. So even if a person is finally acquitted, he or she would have endured years of mental harassment and potential undertrial incarceration. The baseless nature of most sedition cases is evident from NCRB statistics which indicate that while the number of sedition cases registered has doubled in recent years, the conviction rate has fallen drastically,” says Mukhopadhyay.

Role of Indian courts

Over the years, courts have tried to specify the scope of sedition in order to curb its misuse. In cases like the landmark Kedar Nath Singh case (1962), the Supreme Court clearly stated that an offence will be booked under sedition if it is found to be causing “incitement to violence” or the “tendency or the intention to create public disorder”.

While the constitutional validity of Section 124A has also been challenged in the past, however, due to lack of legislative cooperation in this regard, the section has still not been repealed yet.

“Courts have tried to narrow down the scope of sedition by laying down guidelines but the need of the hour is complete repeal of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code by the Parliament. As long as a vague and overbroad offence like sedition remains on the statute books, its misuse is inevitable and the problem can be effectively addressed only if 124A is repealed by the legislature or declared unconstitutional by a court,” says Mukhopadhyay.

Sedition and digital dissent

Today, social media has become a virtual setting that gives voice to people’s concerns and opinions. With the spread of smartphones across the country and the resultant boom in social media’s popularity, the government has frequently applied sedition to deter open dissension.

In January 2020, Mangaluru Police issued notices to 23 persons and arrested two for allegedly publishing ‘provocative’ posts on social media. Some of the notices were issued through the Twitter account of the Mangaluru Cybercrime police and included charges under the Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code.

Besides misuse of law of sedition, the government has now come up with dangerously oppressive laws to curb dissent over social media. For instance, the new IT Rules 2021 give more power to the government over digital entities and are extremely intrusive and constrictive.

“IT Rules 2021 suffer from several procedural and substantive problems. They have been unilaterally notified by the executive branch without any discussion in Parliament, and they are beyond the scope of the parent legislation-the IT Act. By threatening intermediaries with loss of immunity and criminal prosecution in case of non-compliance, they have created an environment in which social media platforms have shrinking scope to push back against illegal censorship demands by the government” says Mukhopadhyay.

In his tweet in December 2019, Modi had underlined the importance of “debate, discussion and dissent” as being the foundation of democracy. However, after seven years of his rule these values seem to be endangered in the country.

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