Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu has hinted that raising slogans of 'azaadi' (freedom) anywhere in the country — be it Bastar or Kashmir — will no longer get free pass once his government tightens the contentious sedition law that gives the state power to arrest anyone for 'treason'.
In an interview with India Today's Rahul Kanwal, Naidu made a case for action against those who seek to disturb the integrity and union of India through anti-nation propaganda. When pointed out that the Supreme Court, in several judgments, has protected the rights of citizens to criticise their government, as long as there's no incitement to violence, Naidu said that's usually the next step.
"The slogan of azaadi is always followed by violence. These people, whether in Bastar or Jammu and Kashmir, always take to the gun. That is the next course. Their slogans will be followed by violence," he said. The Law Ministry and the Home Ministry, after proper consultation, will bring a tougher law to act preemptively against those who raise slogans of freedom.
"The unity and integrity of the people is paramount," Naidu said. The assumption that chanting of political slogans asking for autonomy, no matter how unpalatable and pungent, will incite violence sets a dangerous precedent and leaves students vulnerable to the state's wrath. While the minister said he supported discourse at colleges, he refused to brook any argument on the territorial integrity of India.
Left leader Sitaram Yechury has condemned the government's attempt at bringing back a debate on patriotism. "This is pseudo-nationalistic jingoism. Who are they to brand people anti-India or not?"
In 1962, in a landmark judgment delivered in the Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Section 124A (sedition) of the IPC but subject to the condition that it not be misused. "Words, deeds or writings constituted an offence under s. 124A only when they had the intention or tendency to disturb public tranquility, to create public disturbance or to promote disorder".
When the issue came up again after the JNU protests in 2016, the SC again told authorities to follow the Kedar Nath case.
"We are of the considered opinion that the authorities while dealing with the offences under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code shall be guided by the principles laid down by the Constitution Bench in Kedar Nath Singh vs. State of Bihar case. Except saying so, we do not intend to deal with any other issue as we are of the considered opinion that it is not necessary to do so. The writ petition is accordingly disposed off."
This is what the Supreme Court had to say in the case of Balwant Singh vs State Of Punjab on 1 March, 1995:
"The prosecution has admitted that no disturbance, whatsoever, was caused by the raising of the slogans by the appellants and that inspite of the fact that the appellants raised the slogans a couple of times, the people, in general, were un-affected and carried on with their normal activities. The casual raising of the Slogans, once or twice by two individuals alone cannot be said to be aimed at exciting or attempt to excite hatred or disaffection towards the Government as established by law in India, Section 124A IPC, would in the facts and circumstances of the case have no application whatsoever and would not be attracted to the facts and circumstances of the case.
In so far as the offence under Section 153A IPC is concerned, it provides for punishment for promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever or brings about disharmony or feeling of hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities. In our opinion only where the written or spoken words have the tendency or intention of creating public disorder or disturbance of law and order or effect public tranquility, that the law needs to step in to prevent such an activity."
Naidu's comments are sure to spark a fresh debate among campaigners of free speech. There has been repeated calls to scrap the sedition law, a relic from colonial times that authorities often use to curb political dissent. In an electrifying speech, Kanhaiya Kumar from JNU, who was arrested on charges of sedition, called for 'azaadi' from poverty and communalism. He said he wanted "freedom in India, not freedom from India."
Meanwhile, a poster calling for freedom for Kashmir that had popped up at the Jawaharlal Nehru University's School of Social Sciences was removed by the administration. The poster asked for "Freedom for Kashmir! Free Palestine! Right to self-determination long live".
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