Monday, August 29, 2016

In Re Sedition

The offence of sedition made headlines again last week. This time, a public statement had been made stating that Pakistan was not hell. Cue, pandemonium. A private complaint under Section 124-A of the IPC was filed against the maker of the statement [Ms. Ramya, an erstwhile MP]; demonstrations were carried out in Karnataka by certain political outfits, and various entities were demanding a retraction of the statement over the internet. This circus came shortly after Amnesty India had also been alleged to have sponsored seditious talks in Bengaluru. The uproar fizzed, as it always does, and there were the usual outraged television debates with news anchors telling us that the nation wanted to know how could a crime like sedition still exist. The public live-tweets and votes in favour of repeal outnumber those for retention of the offence. If only live-tweeting could replace parliament.

I find it very difficult to discuss the offence of sedition under Section 124-A of the IPC given the obviously political and policy-based tenors of the debate generated. The wanton criminalisation of speech and expression carried out by the provision has been subjected to intense analysis by my friend and colleague Mr. Gautam Bhatia in his book. All of that debate has a clear conclusion - if one considers free speech and expression as important democratic virtues, then offences criminalising these virtues are obvious problems. The value judgment of where to draw the line on free speech must, theoretically, be made by the democracy. By having failed to repeal the offence despite it being 2016 today, one can argue that our democracy wants the sedition offence.

If I was to look at Section 124-A IPC, I'd obviously agree with all that is said about it being a horrible infringement on free speech, for those are my virtues too. But, regardless of the political virtues we subscribe to, there are deep objective problems with the offence that cannot be ignored. It is criminally vague and espouses a standard that defies any logical and unbiased enforcement. But even more importantly, the offence is redundant and achieves nothing from a criminal law perspective. The purpose of any offence is to curb certain kinds of behaviour in society. Can the conduct curtailed by having an offence such as Section 124-A IPC be curtailed by other offences? Certainly, yes; acts that would be properly booked under sedition as per the interpretation of the Supreme Court would ultimately also be offences of Rioting etc under the IPC. 

So why have sedition as an offence? In a 1977 Report/Working Paper, the Law Commission for UK and Wales recommended that the offence of sedition not be part of a proposed criminal code. It noted that "Apart from the consideration that there is likely to be a sufficient range of other offences covering conduct amounting to sedition, we think that it is better in principle to rely on these ordinary statutory and common law offences than to have resort to an offence which has the implication that the conduct in question is 'political'." I argue that this is the very reason why sedition continues to be an offence in India - it provides a label that the conduct is political. In a country which wears its nationalism on its sleeve (or, on its plate, depending on where you are), it is necessary to have sanctions against the wrong kind of political. That's an answer, if the nation wants to know.

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