Rational listening, anyone?

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The clear and detailed exposition by Supreme Court Justice Deepak Gupta of the right to freedom of speech and expression is very relevant at a time when this constitutional right is being challenged and denied on various grounds by governments, organisations and groups. One such ground is sedition, which is invoked and interpreted so as to harass political opponents or anyone who dissents or criticises those in power and authority. Justice Gupta, in a valedictory address at a lawyers’ workshop in Ahmedabad, traced the history of the sedition law and explained its scope and intent, juxtaposing it with the legal and legitimate rights of citizens in a democratic system. He cited several important judicial pronouncements and judgments to drive home the point that Article 19(1) of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression, has primacy over Section 124A of the IPC that deals with sedition.

The most important point that Justice Gupta made was that the right of freedom of opinion and of conscience includes the extremely important right to disagree. Freedom of expression has no meaning if it does not include the freedom to question and criticise accepted norms and authority. Citizens should be able to criticise the government, individuals or institutions like the judiciary and the armed forces, and such criticism should not be considered a crime and dubbed as anti-national activity. A democratic system should uphold a citizen’s right to differ and propagate what he believes in, as long as that person does not break the law or encourage strife. But the sedition law, which was originally a colonial law formulated to suppress dissent and opposition to the British government, is still there on the statute book, and is invoked against critics and dissenters. The Supreme Court’s injunction that there is no case for sedition if no law and order problem is created is ignored. Justice Gupta wants the law to be toned down, if not abolished altogether. The least that can be done, he says, is to make sedition a non-cognisable offence.  Justice Gupta’s reiteration of the importance of the citizens’ constitutional and democratic rights highlights the challenges that they face in the country now. His statements that majoritarianism cannot be the law and the country is bigger than any individual are significant in the present environment. He has also underlined the importance of disagreement not just as a constitutional value but as an imperative to expand the horizons of mind and take the society forward. His counsel that people in power should have thick skins, broad shoulders and wide thinking is wise, and should be heeded if democracy is to survive and grow stronger.

It has been seen that in recent times the tolerance for criticism has gone down. The government seems to have no space for questions being raised as much of it is either dodged or not answered at all. With the Supreme Court now stepping in, it will be interesting to see what comes out of the matter. Right to freedom of speech and expression – a fundamental right given by the constitution but will it ever come in practical existence? Or would the right die a slow death in the fight for its survival. However, having said this the abuse of the right is only one thing to look out for!

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