Criticism of Nation & Its History Is Not Sedition: Law Commission

“Every irresponsible exercise of right to free speech & expression can’t be termed seditious,” said the Commission.

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Demonstrators shout slogans as they hold placards during a protest demanding the release of Kanhaiya Kumar, a JNU student union leader accused of sedition, in New Delhi, on 2 March  2016. Image used for representation purpose.
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"In a democracy, singing from the same songbook is not a benchmark of patriotism," observes the Law Commission of India, in a consultation paper on "Sedition" put out on Thursday, 30 August.

The Law Commission of India is a body of researchers and legal experts that works for legal reform in India. It falls under the Ministry of Law and Dr Justice BS Chauhan is the present chairperson of this executive body.

"The Law Commission of India was asked to consider section 124A of the Indian Penal Code,1860 which deals with sedition," reads the Preface to the Consultation Paper. This paper on Sedition traces the history of the law on sedition in India, pits it against sedition laws of various countries, discusses debates on sedition in the Constituent Assembly and freedom of speech and expression, and also suggests "the way forward."

Here are some of the key observations made by The Law Commission in the consultation paper:

  • “If the country is not open to positive criticism, there lies little difference between the pre and post-Independence eras. Right to criticise one’s own history and the right to offend are rights protected under free speech.”
  • “Section 124A should be invoked only in cases where the intention behind any act is to disrupt public order or to overthrow the Government with violence and illegal means.”
  • "Dissent and criticism are essential ingredients of a robust public debate on policy issues as part of vibrant democracy."
  • "The United Kingdom abolished sedition laws ten years back citing that the country did not want to be quoted as an example of using such draconian laws."
  • "Every irresponsible exercise of right to free speech and expression cannot be termed seditious."
  • "Expression of frustration over the state of affairs, for instance, calling India ‘no country for women’, or a country that is ‘racist’ for its obsession with skin colour as a marker of beauty, are critiques that do not threaten the idea of a nation."

The Quint contacted a consultant who had aided the Law Commission in drafting the paper. On being asked why was a paper on sedition prepared, the consultant, on condition of anonymity, said:

The need to revisit section 124A has been going on for a very long period of time. We ought to examine the feasibility of section 124 A and whether we need it or not.

The Law Commission also raises a few questions on issues that require consideration in order to study revision of section 124A.

These include:

  • "In view of the fact that there are several statutes which take care of various acts which were earlier considered seditious, how far would keeping section 124A in the IPC serve any purpose?"
  • "The United Kingdom abolished sedition laws ten years back citing that the country did not want to be quoted as an example of using such draconian laws. Given the fact that the section itself was introduced by the British to use as a tool to oppress the Indians, how far it is justified to retain 124A in IPC?"
  • "What is the extent to which the citizens of our country may enjoy the right to offend?"
  • "At what point the right to offend would qualify as hate speech?"

The consultant contacted by The Quint said that this paper has been put out so that the Law Commission can "solicit public opinion" before releasing a full-fledged report on sedition.

The Law Commission will also be interacting with the government with regard to this consultation paper. The government may then choose to give a response to it.

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