OVER THE LAST few years the Supreme Court had been generally turning a blind eye on violation of human rights and misuse of laws, particularly the UAPA and sedition laws, by the governments of the day.
Unfortunately the last four Chief Justices of India did not take up the broader issue of basic human rights though they selectively dealt with some cases.
A bright light of hope has now been shown by the current Chief Justice of India N V Ramana who took over recently. He had been earlier too speaking against violation of human rights and taking away liberties of people on frivolous charges. However he was not able to take the bull by the horns because of the hesitancy of his predecessors.
A bench headed by him now has agreed to hear a plea challenging the constitutional validity of Section 124A IPC which deals with the law of sedition.
The bench, which also included Justices AS Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy, have directed that a copy of the plea to be served on the Attorney General of India KK Venugopal.
In what may be an unprecedented judicial criticism of the way the sedition law is used by the government to crush liberties, Chief Justice asked why a colonial law used against Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak continued to survive in the law book after 75 years of Independence.
The CJI said sedition law was prone to misuse by the government. “The use of sedition is like giving a saw to the carpenter to cut a piece of wood and he uses it to cut the entire forest itself,” Chief Justice Ramana said in the court in an unusually harsh tone.
The observations by the Chief Justice come in the wake of rising public criticism of central and state governments using the sedition law to silence dissent, muffle free expression and for denying bail to jailed activists, journalists, students and civil society members.
A number of petitions, which has been filed earlier highlighting the misuse of sedition laws, including the latest filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties on July 16, are now likely to be bunched together.
Recently another Supreme Court judge, Justice DY Chandrachud, who is highly respected for his professionalism, had also said that criminal laws, including the anti-terror legislation, should not be misused for quelling dissent or harassment of citizens.
He had said as the guardian of the Constitution, judiciary has to put a break where executive or legislative actions infringe fundamental human rights.
While these laws had been misused by the previous governments too, including the Congress led governments, the extent of misuse and rampant use of these laws to curb criticism, has seen a steep increase since the advent of Modi regime.
Official data from the National Crime Records Bureau’s report on Crime statistics for 2019 confirm the fact that there has been a sharp increase in booking people under these laws.
Ninety-three cases of sedition were filed in 2019, which is a 165 per cent jump from 35 in 2016. While the latest data is not yet available, there are several recent instances of imposition of these laws.
Last year a group of 49 prominent personalities were booked for sedition. All that these persons, including historian Ramachandra Guha, actor Konkana Sen Sharma, and filmmakers Mani Ratnam and Aparna Sen, had done was to write an open letter to the Prime Minister to express concern over incidents of lynchings in the name of holy cow.
Over the last few months sedition cases have been lodged against citizens including poets, film makers, journalists, political leaders, social workers and intellectuals.
The recent arrest of a 22 year old girl on charges of sedition and the slapping of charges of sedition against leading journalists including Anant Nath, Rajdeep Sardesai and Mrinal Pandey besides senior congress leader Shashi Tharoor, are some of the instances of the misuse of sedition laws.
The latest being the death in custody of Stan Swamy, a Roman Catholic priest and human rights activist, who was the oldest to have been charged with sedition at the age of over 80 years and who died while in custody as an undertrial.
The initiative taken by Chief Justice Ramana is therefore very welcome and praiseworthy. All lovers of freedom civil liberties would eagerly wait for a final verdict on the laws by the highest court of the land.
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