‘Not An Offence’
Justice Dharmendra Rana, the Additional Sessions Judge of Delhi’s Patiala House Court, delivered an important verdict on February 23, 2021. The verdict can be considered proverbial, obviously forgotten by the modern States in different parts of the Globe. While granting bail to 22-year-old Climate Activist Disha Annappa Ravi, Justice Rana reminded the people of India that the Constitution of this South Asian Country gives its Citizens the Right to Protest (as a part of Freedom of Speech). He categorically said: “Citizens can’t be put behind bars simply because they choose to disagree with State Policies. The offence of Sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the Governments.”
What Justice Rana stated was supposed to be the established policy of a 74-year-old Democratic Nation. Unfortunately, the Judiciary had to remind the State about the essence of the actual meaning of the word Sedition. Nowadays, it is being seen that Youth Activism has led to a veritable shift in political participation and activism, and notably there has been a rise in Alter-Activism, an emergent political praxis in the process that represents an alternative form among the youth, prefiguring wider social changes! Disha Ravi is, thus, a youth Climate Change Activist, and the founder of Fridays For Future India.
On February 4, 2021, Swedish Environmental Activist Greta Thunberg had tweeted in support of the Indian Farmers and in another tweet linked an updated toolkit, saying that it was “by people on the ground in India“. Following media reports of Indian authorities filing a First Information Report (FIR) against her (since corrected that the FIR is against the original creators of the toolkit), Thunberg had tweeted again: “I still #StandWithFarmers and support their peaceful protest. No amount of hate, threats or violations of Human Rights will ever change that. #FarmersProtest.” Later on February 13, the Delhi Police picked up Ravi from her Bengaluru residence for allegedly disseminating the Social Media toolkit by Thunberg related to the Farmers’ Protests. Her arrest was “reportedly based on an FIR filed by the Cybercrime Unit of the Delhi Police, which was registered against the creators of the ‘toolkit’ on February 4“. The Government of India alleged that the toolkit – a standard social justice communications and organising document, providing a list of ways to support the Farmers’ Protests – fomented unrest and a form of Sedition. However, Ravi’s arrest was widely criticised both within and outside India.
The Honourable Judge reminded his fellow citizens of another important issue: Protest should be considered as Freedom of Speech, and communicating with the Global Audience is a part of that Freedom! If one thinks that the Government commits a mistake, then the person can discuss the issue with his friends, personally; and also with others on the Social Media. According to Justice Rana, both fall within the person’s Freedom of Speech. Indeed, a violent atmosphere had been seen in the Indian Capital due to the Farmers’ Protests on January 26. However, Ravi’s Social Media post hardly had a connection with the violence. Still, she was arrested!
Notably, a large number of Indians feel that it is a crime to speak out against the Government mainly because of illiteracy, ignorance and political insensitivity. Hence, a young man, who was happy with the news of Ravi’s bail, reportedly said that one would have to talk cautiously. Perhaps, he is right. The harsh reality is that one can be termed an Anti-National or a Traitor or even a Criminal, without even committing any crime in India, nowadays! This particular atmosphere, naturally, is all set to change the concept of Freedom of Speech. Now, the younger generation would think twice before criticising the Government. This tendency of indulging into self-control is not at all unjust, but seemingly quite normal. However, does here not lie the Ultimate Defeat of Democracy and Individual Freedom?
Still, there are people, like Justice Rana, who, sitting on their chairs of authority, are not ready to allow an authoritarian and intolerant State to destroy the essence of Democracy. The crime of Sedition is enunciated in Section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), with three Explanations that follow the text. In an article published in The Times of India daily on March 1, 2021, retired Indian Police Service (IPS) Officer Julio Ribeiro wrote: “The Supreme Court (of India), when confronted with adjudicating the constitutionality of this IPC Provision which undermines the guarantee of Free Speech in Sections 19(1) and 19(2) of the Constitution, took into account the purport of these three Explanations, and held in its Kedar Nath Judgement of 1962 that unless a person’s speech or writing goes beyond mere criticism of a party in power, it does not constitute Sedition.” Ribeiro added: “It is not enough to attack the party in power or the Government of the day. The attack must target the State per se and incite the people to whom the speech or writing is addressed to topple the State through violence.”
However, the increased application of this Draconian Law aptly makes it seem visible that India is a Nation prone to Sedition. If the Judiciary takes on the duty of reminding the Government of its responsibility to adhere to the Law and its interpretation by the Court, it may stop this deluge of Cases on Sedition getting wrongly registered against activists; and this is perhaps why India badly needs Justice Rana and people like him, as only they can uphold and safeguard Democracy, as well as the Freedom of Speech, in the South Asian Nation.
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