A colonial relic: On need to scrap sedition law

Repeated misuse of sedition law underlines the need to scrap it altogether

Updated - February 27, 2021 12:18 pm IST

Published - February 27, 2021 12:02 am IST

A sessions court in Delhi has affirmed the belief that a dispassionate scrutiny of outlandish claims by the police is necessary for protecting the liberty of those jailed on flimsy, often political, reasons. Rejecting the purported evidence presented by the Delhi Police against climate change activist Disha Ravi, as “scanty and sketchy”, Judge Dharmender Rana has granted bail to the 22-year-old arrested for nothing more than editing a document shared among a network of activists raising global support for the farmers’ protests against three central laws . Even though it was quite obvious that the claim of a global conspiracy behind the unsavoury and violent incidents that took place on January 26 in New Delhi lacked credence, the order of bail is still notable for subjecting the specific charges to strict judicial scrutiny at a fairly early stage. In particular, the judge has applied the established test for a charge of sedition under Section 124A of the IPC to pass muster: that the act involved must constitute a threat to public order and incitement to violence. He found that there was not even an iota of evidence indicating that the ‘toolkit’, a shared Google cloud document with ideas on how to go about amplifying the protests, in anyway incited violence. He was clear that there was no causal link between the violence and Ms. Ravi, a conclusion that confirmed widespread criticism that the arrest was unnecessary, and that the entire case was nothing more than a reflection of government paranoia.

The episode highlights a trend that has caused concern in recent times: the tendency of the rulers to treat instances of dissent, especially involving strident criticism of policies and laws in which particular regimes are deeply invested, as attempts to provoke disaffection and disloyalty. Hence, it is significant that the judge not only saw Ms. Ravi’s activism as related to her freedom of speech and expression, but went on to say that an attempt to reach a global audience is part of that freedom. In the backdrop of the claim that those who prepared the toolkit made common cause with Khalistani separatists, Judge Rana showed refreshing clarity in maintaining that mere interaction with a group with dubious credentials could not be used to consider someone culpable. It should also be underscored that such bail orders should not be rare or special, but be routine judicial responses to cases in which there is a mismatch between the accusation and the evidence. It is by now fairly clear to everyone except, perhaps, the government and its vociferous supporters, that there is no place in a modern democracy for a colonial-era legal provision such as sedition. Too broadly defined, prone to misuse, and functioning as a handy tool to repress activism, the section deserves to be scrapped.

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