Climate activist Disha Ravi is out on bail in the toolkit case, 10 days after her arrest that had sparked outrage in India and abroad. The 22-year-old shouldn’t have been put in jail in the first place, going by the dressing-down given by a Delhi court to the police. Pulling no punches, Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana said, ‘The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments.’ This hard-hitting statement shows law enforcement officials as well as their political masters in a poor light. The Delhi Police were left red-faced as the court observed that the ‘scanty and sketchy’ evidence available on record was not sufficient to keep a person with no criminal record in custody.
Calling citizens ‘conscience keepers’ of the government in a democratic nation, the court has made it clear that people cannot be put behind bars simply because they choose to disagree with the State’s policies. Such observations can help counter the unwelcome trend of vilification of protesters and hopefully deter cops from invoking the sedition law at the drop of a hat. In any case, the poor conviction rate of this colonial-era legislation is a good reason for the police not to go overboard time and again.
Judge Rana had been equally forthright last week when he granted bail to two persons who were booked on the charge of sedition for allegedly posting/sharing fake videos on social media regarding the farmers’ protests. He had sounded a note of caution about the misuse of the law ‘to quieten the disquiet under the pretence of muzzling the miscreants’. It’s praiseworthy that the judiciary is intervening to prevent infringement of the individual’s right to dissent. The onus now is on the executive to respect difference of opinion and let protesters fearlessly have their say, as long as they don’t incite violence or disturb public peace. With India’s global ranking on the Democracy Index down from 27 (in 2014) to 53 last year, the government direly needs to make judicious use of the powerful tools at its disposal to maintain law and order.