New Delhi: Former Supreme Court judge, Justice Rohinton Nariman, has urged the apex court to strike down the 'colonial era' sedition law and offensive parts of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA).
Speaking at a function organised by the Viswanath Pasayat Memorial Committee, Justice Nariman has said that it is "important for the court" to strike down Section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which criminalises sedition. He called the UAPA a "draconian legislation" and said the law requires to be scrutinised by the top court.
Justice Nariman was of the view that the top court should not refer the batch of petitions pending before it on the sedition law to the Central government and that it should assert its power of judicial review to strike down the contentious Section 124A. "I would exhort the Supreme Court to not send sedition law cases pending before it back to the Centre. Governments will come and go (but) it is important for the court to use its power and strike down Section 124A and an offensive portion of UAPA. Then citizens here would breathe more freely," Justice Rohinton said.
How UAPA and sedition law came into being
He explained how UAPA came into the statute book after India's wars with Pakistan and China. "We had the China and Pakistan wars. Thereafter, we introduced the draconian legislation-- UAPA. Disaffection continues in the statute book and UAPA is a draconian act as it has no anticipatory bail and has a minimum of five years imprisonment. This act is not under scanner yet. This too has to be looked into along with the sedition law," Justice Nariman said.
He also recounted how the British used the sedition law against Indians including prominent freedom fighters and mentioned how Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were convicted for sedition for speaking against the colonial government.
Interestingly, Justice Nariman also said how RSS-backed Organiser magazine had to undergo pre-censorship in 1950 by the Nehru administration for speaking against the government. Sedition law and UAPA has a chilling effect on journalists, said Justice Nariman urging the top court to examine and strike down the two laws.
Justice Nariman also highlighted India's rank in the global law index which is 142 "because of the draconian and colonial laws that still exist". He said the Nobel Peace Prize was conferred on two journalists from the Philippines and Russia, and India was at rank 142 despite being known as the world's largest democracy.
The former judge, who retired in August after a seven-year tenure in the top court, had in 2015 quashed Section 66A of the Information Technology Act for having the "chilling effect" on the right to freedom of speech. Section 66A gave the government power to arrest and imprison an individual for allegedly "offensive and menacing" online posts and conviction could fetch a maximum of three years in jail.
The court speaks
On July 15, Chief Justice of India NV Ramana had questioned the government on the requirement of sedition law even after 75 years of independence and pointed out that sedition law was used against freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. "Our concern is a misuse of the law and the lack of accountability. Why it continues in the statute book after 75 years of our Independence," CJI had said, adding that sedition law was meant to suppress the freedom movement and asked what was its need today.
CJI Ramana had said that the apex court will look into the plea challenging the Constitutional validity of section 124A while observing that it is a "serious threat to the functioning of individuals and parties".
CJI had further said that "use of sedition is like giving a saw to the carpenter to cut a piece of wood and he uses it to cut the entire forest itself" while adding that conviction rate under Section 124A is very low.
The top court CJI Bench had asked Attorney General for India KK Venugopal why sedition law can't be repealed. Attorney General had replied that section 124A need not be struck down and only guidelines are set out so that section meets its legal purpose. The penal provision is punishable with a jail term ranging between three years and a life term, with or without a fine.