March 2016
Event report: Panel Discussion on Free Speech and Sedition in a Democracy (includes video)

The Video Recording of the Panel Discussion on Free Speech and Sedition in a Democracy can be accessed here.To suggest an alternative form of government is not to bring hatred or contempt against the current one”, said Justice K. Chandru, retired judge of the Madras High Court, while speaking on a panel discussion on Free Speech and Sedition in a Democracy, held at Kasturi Srinivasan Hall, The Music Academy in Chennai on March 24, 2016.The other speakers on the panel were A.X. Alexander, former Director General of Police, Tamil Nadu, and Sriram Panchu, Senior Advocate, Madras High Court. N. Ravi, Director, Kasturi and Sons Limited (KSL) and former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, moderated the panel discussion, organised by The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy.The public event was organised against the backdrop of a spate of university-centric protests spurred by the use of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code to arrest students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi in February.Initiating the discussion, Ravi highlighted the issues of whether a colonial era law like sedition was still required in a constitutional democracy and republic, and asked if it would be possible for the sovereignty and security of the state to be protected by other less draconian laws. In addition, he observed that the Indian public found itself before a false dilemma where they are asked to decide between free speech and the perceived threats to the nation’s security. “When confronted with this choice free speech is less likely to win,” Ravi said.Chandru took the discussion forward by pointing out that the current wave of saffronisation started in 2015 when a notice from the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) was brought before the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M). He said that if someone bans a study circle linked to Dr. Ambedkar, one must look for a political agenda behind that move. He said that the protests at JNU, IIT Madras, and the University of Hyderabad need to be looked at on a continuum. “Section 124A is being used to attack JNU, it is not about the students. JNU is one of the best liberal institutions of India,” he said.Chandru also pointed to a dangerous trend in the judiciary where in a bail order for Kanhaiya Kumar, the student body president of JNU, the sitting judge had to defend her decision to give interim bail in the order itself. He said this pointed to a judiciary, which was cautious about its own legal decisions.Alexander took a contrary view, calling for the retention of the Section. He said the police are a nationalist force by training. Whenever they see a threat to public order, they act. Sometimes they book people under 124A. “A controversial statement leaves ripples and reverberations. Some of these ripples and reverberations could trigger large scale violence,” he said. He also pointed out that the policeman responds to his training, by filing a First Information Report based on his reading of the bare act, and does not look into the nuances of what constitutes sedition and what does not, on a level similar with what the courts do. “There are inbuilt mechanisms in place to stop misuse”, he said. Ending his presentation, Mr. Alexander said that given the number of security threats to India, the sedition law should stay on the statute book. He added, “Free speech cannot be very free”.Sriram Panchu, on the other hand, said that the business of free speech and the business of dissent is to bring into discontent, the government. Highlighting the legal history behind 124A, he said that India had made two mistakes with respect to the law of sedition. The first was in 1951 when Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister, was upset about the courts not taking a case against the publication Organiser. He then introduced “public order” under Art 19. Second, during the Keshvanand Bharti case “involving a farmer who said that capitalists, landlords and, for good measure, some Congress leaders, needed to be overthrown” in 1962, there was a unique opportunity to strike the law off the book. In this particular case, he noted, the Allahabad High Court had said that for a case to be one of sedition there needs to be a clear threat to law and order. On the basis of this ruling, the Supreme Court could have thrown out the law. Its application in the case of student meetings in JNU, he said, was a “ham-handed use of the law of sedition”. He added, “Nowadays you are convicted on the 9 O’clock news. This news is about curbing dissent.”The Senior Advocate wanted changes to the IPC in which the understanding of the word “sedition” could be restricted to violence and direct incitement to violence. He noted that retired police officer, Kiren Bedi, had also pointed out that the Supreme Court had limited the offence of sedition to violence. He noted that both the U.S. and the U.K. (which has taken the law of sedition out) were using the Brandenburg Test to think about acts that could be construed as sedition. In Brandenburg v. Ohio , the U.S. Supreme Court maintained that the government cannot constitutionally punish inflammatory speech unless that speech is likely to incite or directly incites ‘imminent lawless action’. So the intent of the speech, the likelihood of the speech causing disorder and the imminence of such disorder are necessary for such speech to be termed seditious. The panellists also responded to questions from the audience. An audience member suggested that the sedition section should be rewritten by replacing “government” with “nation. Chandru said that this move would cause more damage. In replying to an a question about the role of the police in the on-going student agitations in Hyderabad and New Delhi, Alexander said that the police use force as a last resort, they observe a situation, try mediation and when all else fails, then use the lathi,The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy held the event against the backdrop of recent spate of cases involving the use of 124A of the Indian Penal Code against various academics and students. The concerns raised by the panellists covered all aspects of the law of sedition and included both points of view. Seiji Baba, Japanese Consul-General in Chennai, retired Justice Prabha Sridevan, Vasanthi Devi, former Vice Chancellor, Manonmaniam Subramaniam University, Thirunelveli, N. Ram, Chairman, Kasturi & Sons Limited (KSL), and former Editor-in-Chief,¸ The Hindu , and Group publications, N. Murali, Co-chairman, KSL, A.S. Panneerselvan, Readers Editor, The Hindu , writers, lawyers, and students were among those who attended the Panel Discussion held at Kasturi Srinivasan Hall, The Music Academy. The Hindu Centre’s Background Note on Free Speech and Sedition in a Democracy. Audio link: Panel Discussion on “Free Speech and Sedition in a Democracy”, can be accessed here .

‘Sedition law is political; it is misused in India’

Video Recording of the Panel Discussion Audio Recording of the Panel Discussion Focussing on the recent events that unfolded at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy organised a panel discussion on ‘Free Speech and Sedition in a Democracy,’ touching upon the impact of sedition law on freedom of speech, in Chennai on Thursday. Source: The Hindu, CHENNAI, March 25, 2016 Read More.. The Hindu Centre's Background Note on Free Speech and Sedition in a Democracy: The Hindu , Thursday, March 24, 2016 Published in other Media: Background Note: india EVERYDAY, Thursday, March 24, 2016 Express News, Thursday, March 24, 2016 Headlines News, Thursday, March 24, 2016, Thursday, March 24, 2016 News: The New Indian Express, Friday, March 25, 2016

Free Speech and Sedition in a Democracy

There is a strong case to question the continuation of sedition laws in democratic India for at least three reasons. First, they were framed by colonial ‘rulers’ to suppress dissent raised by the ‘ruled’, and is out of place in a democratic republic in which political sovereignty rests with the citizens. Second, despite the highest judiciary of independent India reading down the Section, there appears to be little political restraint in invoking it to incarcerate dissenters of all hues. Third, the existing provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) are sufficient to address all threats to violence and public order. Click here to download the Background Note [PDF 4.20 MB]

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