The constitutionality or otherwise of Section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code has repeatedly come for judicial scrutiny in recent years, coinciding with an alarming rise in the number of cases registered under this law. Sedition cases shot up by 160 per cent in a three-year period (2016-19), while the conviction rate dropped to just 3 per cent. On Thursday, a Supreme Court Bench headed by Chief Justice NV Ramana asked the Centre why a colonial-era law used by the British to silence Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak was still in existence even 75 years after Independence. The court also wondered why the government was not repealing this penal provision, while expressing concern over its ‘enormous misuse’.
Most sedition cases fall flat in courts as the police and other law-enforcement agencies overzealously put people behind bars on the basis of flimsy or fabricated evidence and don’t even bother to conduct a proper investigation. The executing agencies’ intention is largely to teach a lesson to the dissenters — be it scholars, activists or farmers — and deter others from raising their voice. Even if the accused person is eventually acquitted, the ordeal of having spent considerable time in prison as an undertrial leaves him scarred for life.
The apex court’s scathing remarks have come on the heels of SC judge Justice DY Chandrachud’s statement that criminal laws, including the anti-terror law, should not be misused for quelling dissent and courts must act as the first line of defence against deprivation of liberty. The judiciary has been stepping in time and again to protect the fundamental rights of citizens. The onus is now on the government to do its duty and rectify the perilous situation. In August 2019, the Centre had enacted the Repealing and Amending Act, under which around 60 archaic or redundant Acts were scrapped. The time has come to throw out the sedition law as well. The longer it stays on the statute book, the greater will be the damage it can cause to Indian democracy.
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