Berating country not sedition, right to offend is protected under free speech: Law Commission

"If the country is not open to positive criticism, there lies little difference between the pre- and post-independence eras. Right to criticise one's own history and the right to offend are rights protected under free speech," the consultation paper said.

Berating country not sedition, right to offend is protected under free speech: Law Commission

The Law Commission on Thursday emphasised that the expression of a thought that is not in agreement with the the country or the policy of the ruling government doesn't come under the umbrella of sedition. A consultation paper on the subject stated that sedition charges can only be invoked where the intention behind any act is to overthrow the government with violence and illegal means.

Interestingly, the Commission also noted that in order to study revision of section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that deals with sedition, it should be taken into consideration that the United Kingdom, which introduced the section in the IPC, abolished the sedition laws ten years ago. The UK did not want to be quoted as an example of using such "draconian" laws, it observed. 

The consultation paper also toyed with the idea of redefining sedition in a country like India, the largest democracy in the world, considering that right to free speech and expression was an essential ingredient of democracy that has been ensured as a fundamental right by the Constitution. 

"Berating the country or a particular aspect of it, cannot and should not be treated as sedition. If the country is not open to positive criticism, there lies little difference between the pre- and post-independence eras. Right to criticise one's own history and the right to offend are rights protected under free speech," the consultation paper said.

The commission is headed by Justice Balbir Singh Chauhan, a former judge of the Supreme Court. He was appointed Chairman of the 21st Law Commission on 10 March.

For merely expressing a thought that is not in consonance with the policy of the government of the day, a person should not be charged under the section, the paper said. "Sedition charges can only be invoked where the intention behind any act is to overthrow the government with violence and illegal means," it observed.

The paper also cited examples of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, who was charged with sedition over the alleged anti-India slogans on the campus. It added that while it was essential to protect national integrity, it should not be misused as a tool to curb free speech. 

Dissent and criticism are essential ingredients of a robust public debate on policy issues as part of a vibrant democracy, it observed, and therefore, every restriction on free speech and expression must be carefully scrutinised to avoid unwarranted restrictions.

The Commission also hoped that a healthy debate takes place in the country among the legal luminaries, lawmakers, government and non-government agencies, academia, students and the general public on the topic, so that a public friendly amendment could be brought about. 

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