According to Granville Austin “the Indian Constitution is a seamless web of three strands: Building a strong state, establishing the institution and spirit of Democracy, and fostering a social revolution”. However, within the first year of its establishment of constitutional democratic country, the seamless web has started to unravel the conflicts between the democratic thread, that is Freedom of Speech and Expression, and the Sovereignty thread.
The threat to the freedom of speech and expression is the establishment of sedition law. Various countries across the globe enacted the sedition law and amended it. Australia is one such example wherein sedition as an offence in the criminal code was replaced by the offence of “urging violence” by a 2010 amendment. Similarly, in 2009, UK also dissolved the law of sedition through Section 73 of the Coroners and Justice Act.
In India, the law of sedition is still controversial and its relevancy has often been debated inside as well as outside of the Parliament. The opponents of Section 124A claims that the law of sedition is a relic of colonial past and it needs to be abolished completely. However, the advocates of sedition, for instance lawyer Arvind Datar, claims that though the provision is often misused, its relevancy continues to remain even today in order to deal with the rebel groups.
The repressive nature and implementation of the law of sedition casts a long shadow. The recent wave of cases against various politicians, lawyers, writers, human rights activistists, etc, is a demonstration of how broadly is the sedition law applies in our country. A major example of the institutionalized misuse of sedition law is of Arundhati Roy, wherein she was charged along with some other speakers at a seminar called “Azadi (Freedom): The Only Way”. The purpose of this seminar conducted by the committee was for the release of political prisoners in the Srinagar. Arundhati Roy even justified her speech claiming that she did not want people to be “killed, raped, imprisoned or have their finger-nails pulled out in order to force them to say they are Indians”.
Although, there exists no landmark judgment with respect to sedition cases on social media, the government needs to re-evaluate Section 124A for social media users in our country, and ensure that the fundamental right of speech and expression is not hindered for social media users within the ambit of a sedition charge.
The question of whether Section 124A IPC is in contravention with Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution is dealt with in the case of Kedarnath Singh v. State of Bihar. In the said case, a distinction was drawn which made it clear that the law of sedition would apply to the State and not against any individual or set of individuals. It was also observed in the present case that the applicability of the Section 124A of IPC is limited to the activities involving within its ambit the incitement to violence, or the intention or tendency to create public disorder, or disturbance of public peace. Thus, the courts narrowed down the scope of interpretation of Section 124A.
By looking at the legal history of the law of sedition, it can be inferred that sedition laws does not draw any definite line of what acts would fall under the umbrella of sedition and what acts would not. Despite the Kedarnath Singh case, that gave a broad outline of what amounts to seditious act, it still lacks an exact and precise definition to the section and its content.
The inconsistency of the sedition law could be analysed with the example of JNU student union President Kanhaiya Kumar, who was charged for sedition for chanting slogans against the state. After the Kedarnath case, a significant development was witnessed in the case of S. Rangarajan wherein a clear standard was laid down that has to be met in alleging a relation between speech and effect. With respect to Kanhaiya Kumar JNU controversy, former Attorney General, Soli Sorabjee, stated that “Invocation of the section on sedition should only be in cases of slogans which incite violence and have a tendency to create public disorder. Pour state rests on solid foundations which cannot be disturbed by ill-tempered or pungent or stupid slogans”.
The court in the Kedarnath case also held that mere criticism of the government or the comments on administration, irrespective of the fact that they are vigorous or ill-informed, will not amount to sedition. However, there is an evident gap that exists between the absolute interpretations and the interpretation provided by the courts regarding Section 124.
There are various mechanisms through which government can benefit themselves to silence the resistance amongst the population. The traditional forms such as censorship, confiscation of printing presses, prohibition of publications, heavy punishments to the violators, etc, are some of the legal approaches that helped to direct the emerging polity towards a “government by institution” by ensuring that only acceptable form of influence about the government could come across the institutionalised social channels. In India, the legal mechanisms were also used to develop a sense of fear among the individuals about the repercussions of free speech and expression, and also to justify the restrictions. The fear of rebellion, social unrest, and the dire outcomes of publishing seditious material, were often used by the courts and government to supress certain religious and political organizations. However, with the advent of social media, it provides plethora of platforms for individuals to express their opinions and establish a direct access to a very large scale. In other words, social media has revolutionized access and reach to people globally, wherein a virtual community has been setup which by direct access at global level simultaneously provides a platform to provide information, content and views to people on various issues with a touch of a finger. This luxurious access to global audience was not available to everyone, and was also very difficult to attain, before the dawn of social media.
A journalist Vinod Dua was accused for sedition for a YouTube broadcast. In front of the Supreme court, he made remarks that freedom of speech and expression extends to all the citizens on the social media as well as the press. With the introduction of social media people are opening up regarding their viewpoints and the absence of free speech and press will prove detrimental to the Indian democracy. It was also observed that a citizen has the right to say or post whatever they believe about the government or its measures, either by way of remarks/comment or criticism, till the point it doesn’t instigate people to act violently against the government or intent to create public disorder.
The establishment of social media has led to making its users become global publishers. The content is spread across at an enormously high rate. With the traditional law, the media was bound to edit information before publishing it, but with social media the content goes immediately viral with lesser amount for edits. The outcome of any sort of message, that could be moulded and interpreted as per the requirements of the source, can have a huge and voluminous impact on the receivers because the medium is vast and accessible for the source as well as the receivers.
In India, unlike films there exists no censorship laws with respect to social media. But there are certain cyber provisions in the cyber laws that deals with the violation of any right within the cyber space and social media. Section 66A of the India’s Information Technology Act, 2000 is one such example wherein an individual “who posted material that was grossly offensive, inconvenient, injurious, menacing in character or insulting, could be imprisoned for up to three years”. This provision carries a lot of loopholes and subjective interpretation of certain words mentioned in the Act. It has also curbed individual’s freedom of speech and expression to a certain extent. Looking at the recent past, it can be inferred that individuals should have the freedom to raise their voices or personal opinions either online or offline. The courts held that the provision in question is in contravention to the freedom of speech and expression law, and in 2015 the same provision was struck down.
There has also been instances wherein the social media has played a crucial role in overthrowing the oppressive governments, for example Arab Spring, and uniting various activists for common cause.
Even the social media platforms like Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, etc, have claimed to bring transparency to every aspect of political content.
Since it is established that the social media has a vital role to play in any scenario, whenever something like political unrest or protests against a particular law, happens in a country, the government resorts to Internet shutdowns. In fact, India is considered as the world leader in Internet shutdowns with one hundred reported shutdowns in the year 2018 itself. Similarly, in June 2019, eleven cases of internet shutdowns were reported.
A very evident and prime example of this is of a stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra who rose with his brand of political comedy. In 2017, he posted a video on YouTube wherein he spoke for about eight minutes about the government and its cant of patriotism that is not favourable for the masses. The video immediately went viral and appealed to the masses. Through his comedy, he sets a new paradigm making the politics accessible and addressing the key issues of our country. He puts in a lot of effort in his jokes to influence people and prefer to be seen as a political watchdog rather than a spokesperson for his favourite party.
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