The Supreme Court of India deserves unreserved praise for its decision to dismiss a sedition petition against former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah with a fine of Rs 50,000. The Bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Hemant Gupta has laid down a much-needed norm when it ordered that dissent is not sedition. Unfortunately, the colonial-era law, which says that ‘whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation or otherwise brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government shall be punished with imprisonment for life’, still remains as Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code. None of the founding fathers or the subsequent liberal governments found this vague and draconian provision distasteful enough to get it removed from the statute book. Hence, the constitutional court’s order assumes the status of a touchstone for the legality of the application of 124 A.
The learned judges have made it clear that dissent or disagreement with the decisions of the Central government is not sedition. So, Disha Ravi and Farooq Abdullah cannot be prosecuted simply because they do not agree with the government on farm laws or the abrogation of Article 370. There is no democracy without dissent and debate. The court has correctly identified the petitioners’ attempt as ‘publicity interest litigation’, and by imposing the fine it has sent a cautionary message out to frivolous and politically motivated litigants.
That the order came the very same day a Washington-based think tank, Freedom House, downgraded India’s status from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ points to two conflicting facets of India’s present-day predicament. While our institutions try to remain free, there is an attempt by those like the petitioners in the Abdullah case to make the country ‘partly free’ by gagging dissent using those very institutions. The government should ensure that its image does not get sullied any further by its police or vigilante groups, and it is in its interest to showcase India’s free media and all other democratic institutions.