Sedition and defamation

The Supreme Court has told the authorities that criticism of government is not essentially an offence under the sedition law. Nor is it under the defamation law. The 1962 Kedar Nath Singh v/s State of Bihar case made it clear that sedition law operated only when there was violence or proven incitement to violence. The recent reminder is useful as sedition charges are being leveled in large numbers and carelessly. The cases which readily come to mind include student protest at the Jawaharlal Nehru University or a Kashmir debate organized by Amnesty or former Congress MP Ramia showering praise on the people of Pakistan. Governments run by different parties in this country are prone to misuse the law to suppress dissent and stifle slogans which are of no consequence. Minister of State for home Kiran Rijiju said in Parliament that the definition of sedition in the IPC is so wide that anybody who speaks against the government can be accused of it and imprisoned for life.

Criminal defamation charges are made in arbitrary ways to gag and muzzle offending views. Sedition and criminal defamation go back to the days of the British Raj. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru found the sedition law highly objectionable and obnoxious. He wanted it removed in 1951. However, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi tried to introduce an anti-defamation bill. But to him and his supporters defamation meant character-assassination without substantiation. But under tremendous pressure from the opposition and the Press, he had to withdraw the bill. There have been undoubtedly cases of irresponsible defamatory articles published in certain magazines which led to their closure. There should be a fine distinction between such irresponsible writings and healthy criticism of government.

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