Criticism isn’t sedition, govt should have come out against court-ordered FIR
The Financial Express
Charging 49 eminent citizens, who voiced concern over incidents of lynching and mob violence in an open letter to prime minister Narendra Modi, with offences that include sedition is fundamentally outrageous. Such crackdown signals that no dissent will be brooked, and makes communal faultlines more pronounced, helping the politics of polarisation that mainline political parties are recklessly indulging in at the moment. The present instance is particularly alarming, however, because it is not a political party—more specifically, the party in power—that is behind the action. While many were quick to blame the Modi government, and the BJP, it is the district court in Muzzafarpur, Bihar, that ordered for the case to be registered, in response to a petition by an advocate seeking penal action against the letter’s signatories.
Prima facie, there seems little legal basis for the charges. The Supreme Court, in a clutch of judgements, has held that Section 124A of the Criminal Procedure Code, or the sedition charge, is only applicable to acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder, or disturbance of law and order, or incitement to violence, and not to speech that is critical of the government. Yet, governments—whether at the Centre or in the states, a BJP-led one or that led by a different party—have been quite trigger-happy with the charge. But, the open letter that came in July doesn’t seem to contain anything that could invite a sedition or even a public nuisance charge. That a court has chosen to intervene in this manner, without regard for whether the charges would hold, or for how such action threatens the constitutional freedoms of the letter’s signatories is a dangerous turn. But, the Bihar court is hardly alone in having taken such judicial missteps. Earlier this year, a lawyer petitioned a district court in Delhi to register a sedition case against then Congress president Rahul Gandhi for a political statement against Modi; the case is still pending closure.
The more tangible damage from such cases is that they add to the backlog of cases in courts. While a total of 3.1 crore cases are pending at the district/taluka court level, the Muzzafarpur court has over 1.4 lakh cases pending. While private complaints against public figures are common, the courts should have refused to entertain these in the present instance, and quite a few in the past, where the grounds for filing charges are manifestly shaky. Such complaints weigh heavy on an already-overburdened lower judiciary, and are a drain to both resources and time. It is time the courts, if not individuals or political parties, exercised better judgement on such issues. While, in the present instance, it was for the court to decide on the FIR, the government should have clearly denounced any such action.