'Sedition' versus free speech

It is deplorable that three sentences uttered at a seminar relating to the status of Kashmir within India should have evoked such zealous hyper-patriotic anger and resulted in demands for invoking harsh sedition laws. Writer and social activist Arundhati Roy has strong views on the strife-torn and troubled Valley, which many may disagree with, or regard as extremely contentious. But what possible justification can there be — as the Bharatiya Janata Party has outrageously demanded — for slapping a case against her under Section 124 (A) of the Indian Penal Code, for exciting “disaffection” towards or bringing “hatred or contempt” against the government? Do we lock up or threaten to silence our writers and thinkers with an archaic section of the law that carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, merely because they speak their minds? Why is it criminal to suggest that Kashmir's status in India is not settled despite the accession? Aren't so many others in Jammu and Kashmir saying as much? Didn't Chief Minister Omar Abdullah recently remark that the State had only acceded to, and not merged with, the Indian Union? The central government would do well publicly to make a stand and deny reports that it is considering pressing sedition charges against Ms Roy and Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who addressed the same seminar. Courts too must apply their mind and refuse to entertain frivolous and vexatious petitions that make such outrageous allegations.

In his classic defence of free speech, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill laid down what is known as the ‘harm principle.' It postulates that the only justification for silencing a person against his will is to prevent him from causing harm to others. It is to this powerful libertarian mid-19th century principle that we owe the idea that free speech cannot be proscribed merely because we find it disagreeable, and that curbs may be imposed only if such expression constitutes a direct, explicit, and unequivocal incitement to violence. There is no such nexus in Ms Roy's statements on Kashmir, which are shaped around the theme of gross human rights violations and (as she points out in a statement: "Pity the Nation that has to silence its writers" ) “fundamentally a call for justice.” It is tragi-comic that there is talk of ‘sedition' at a time when it is regarded as obsolete in many countries. Courts have ruled that laws that aim to punish people for bringing a government into hatred or contempt are frighteningly broad and risk being used to suppress radical political views. In Britain, the last completed trial in a sedition case dates back to 1947. In the United States, Supreme Court rulings have rendered toothless the most recent sedition law, the Smith Act enacted in 1940. The controversy over Ms Roy's remarks is essentially much ado about nothing.

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Printable version | May 30, 2020 8:20:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/Sedition-versus-free-speech/article13673138.ece

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