Prosecutions Used to Silence Political Dissent
January 5, 2011
Peacefully speaking out against human rights violations is at the heart of free speech, not sedition.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director

(New York) - The Indian parliament should immediately repeal the colonial-era sedition law, which local authorities are using to silence peaceful political dissent, Human Rights Watch said today. The Indian government should drop sedition cases against prominent activists such as Dr. Binayak Sen, Arundhati Roy, and others, Human Rights Watch said.

In two recent cases, in New Delhi and Chhattisgarh, the authorities have pursued sedition charges against peaceful activists, despite a longstanding Supreme Court ruling that prosecution under the sedition law requires incitement to violence, which was not alleged in either case.

"Using sedition laws to silence peaceful criticism is the hallmark of an oppressive government," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The Supreme Court has long recognized that the sedition law cannot be used for this purpose, and India's parliament should amend or repeal the law to reflect this."

On December 24, 2010, a court sentenced Dr. Binayak Sen, a vocal critic of the Chhattisgarh state government's counterinsurgency policies against violent Maoist rebels, to life in prison for sedition. The judge found no evidence that Sen was a member of any outlawed Maoist group or that he was involved in violence against the state. Police had arrested Sen on May 14, 2007, accusing him of carrying messages from the jailed Maoist ideologue Narayan Sanyal. Sen visited Sanyal under the supervision of jail authorities to provide medical and legal aid.

In New Delhi, a magistrate directed the police in November 2010 to investigate sedition charges against the writer and columnist Arundhati Roy even though the Indian government in late October had decided against filing such charges. The allegations against Roy and five others stemmed from speeches they made on October 21 in New Delhi supporting Kashmiri secession. The Home Ministry said that pursuing sedition charges was inappropriate because there was no evidence of inciting violence.

"Considering that India wants the world to celebrate its independent judiciary and active civil society, these actions are both bizarre and regressive," Ganguly said. "Local authorities don't need to wait for parliament to pass any changes in the sedition law to act lawfully, but instead should just stop pursuing cases against their critics."

India's sedition law, section 124A of the Penal Code, prohibits any words either spoken or written, or any signs or visible representation that can cause "hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection," toward the government. In a landmark ruling in 1962, Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar, the Supreme Court ruled that unless the accused incited violence by their speech or action, it would no longer constitute sedition, as it would otherwise violate the right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution.

The court stated: "[C]riticism of public measures or comment on Government action, however strongly worded, would be within reasonable limits and would be consistent with the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression. It is only when the words, written or spoken, etc. which have the pernicious tendency or intention of creating public disorder or disturbance of law and order that the law steps in to prevent such activities in the interest of public order."

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which India ratified in 1979, prohibits restrictions on freedom of expression on national security grounds unless they are provided by law, strictly construed, and necessary and proportionate to address a legitimate threat. Such laws cannot put the right itself in jeopardy.

"Peacefully speaking out against human rights violations is at the heart of free speech, not sedition," Ganguly said. "The repeated misuse of the sedition law should be brought to a stop."

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