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Dissent is not Sedition : Court

Manoj Varghese Manoj Varghese
01 Mar 2021

Dissent or disagreement with Government policies or garnering international support does not lead to sedition, said Patiala House Court while granting bail to the arrested climate activist Disha Ravi after nine days of custody in the Delhi Police’s ‘toolkit’ case. Stating that citizens are “conscience keepers” of the government in a democracy, it said they “cannot be put behind bars simply because they choose to disagree with the State policies.” Thus, it is clear that any sort of disagreement with the government is not illegal or offensive, unless it triggers violence or defames the country intentionally.  

Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana said, “Considering the scanty and sketchy evidence on record, I do not find any palpable reason to breach the general rule of ‘Bail’ against a 22 years old young lady, with absolutely blemish-free criminal antecedents and having firm roots in the society, and send her to jail.” 

He reiterated that disagreement, dissent and even disapprobation are “legitimate tools to infuse objectivity in state policies”, and that an aware and assertive citizenry is a sign of a healthy and vibrant democracy. Citing the right to dissent under the right to freedom of speech in Article 19 of the Constitution, he said that there is nothing wrong with communicating this dissent abroad as well.

In the court, the Delhi Police listed several aspects of Ravi’s conduct, from creation and deletion of a WhatsApp group to reaching out to Greta Thunberg for support, to trying to conceal her identity, to impute criminal motives to her. However, the judge held that: “In my considered opinion, creation of a WhatsApp group or being editor of an innocuous Toolkit is not an offence. Further, since the link with the said toolkit or Poetic Justice Foundation (PJF) has not been found to be objectionable, mere deletion of the WhatsApp chat to destroy the evidence linking her with the toolkit and PJF also becomes meaningless. Also, PJF is not a banned organization and there is no criminal action pending against its founders.”

On her arrest, the court said, “the investigating agency made a conscious choice to arrest the applicant accused upon the strength of material so far collected and now they cannot be permitted to further restrict the liberty of a citizen on the basis of propitious anticipations. None of the hundreds of people arrested on the charges of violence on the Republic Day admitted that they were incited by the toolkit.” 

Despite the Delhi Police’s arguments about how Sikhs For Justice offered a reward for anyone who will hoist a Khalistani flag at India Gate on Republic Day, the judge found that: “There is absolutely no link established on record between the applicant/accused and the said banned organization.”

The protests attracted international attention earlier this month when pop star Rihanna, Thunberg and Meena Harris tweeted their support. India’s Ministry of External Affairs condemned “vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda.”

In the meantime, BJP leaders have exhorted their Members of Parliament (MPs) to visit their constituency and make the local public aware of the benefits of the farm laws. In the meeting, Sanjiv Baliyan, Union Minister of State and an MP from Western Uttar Pradesh was reluctant. But, he was convinced by the leadership and on his visit along with several MLAs and State Ministers to Sourabh and Bhaiswal villages faced the brunt of local farmers. The local people shouted slogans and didn’t listen to him.

The agitation has claimed as many as 248 lives of farmers in just 87 days. The victims comprised 202 from Punjab, 36 from Haryana, six from Uttar Pradesh, one each from Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand. Most of the deaths happened due to heart attack, illness due to cold weather conditions and accidents. This data has been collected from November 26, 2020, to February 20 this year. The Punjab government has provided Rs 5 lakh each in compensation to the families close to 100 deceased farmers who lost their lives during the protest against farm laws. 

The movement has overcome regional, religious, gender and ideological differences to mount pressure. Leftist farm unions, religious organizations and traditional caste-based brotherhoods called khaps, which make pronouncements on social issues, are working in tandem through resolute sit-ins and an aggressive boycott of politicians. The farmers are holding rallies at their respective villages in support of their demand to roll back the Farm Laws.

The political-corporate influence is also jeopardizing media’s independence in the country. India ranks 142nd out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. Mainstream TV news channels often eulogize the government and Hindu right-wing ideology and smear voices of dissent and minorities. Farmers and their supporters have responded by boycotting media outlets, starting their own newsletters and promoting independent journalism. The country has dropped 26 places in the Democracy Index’s global ranking since 2014 due to “erosion of civil liberties.”

The mainstream media has almost neglected the farmers protest and is busy in West Bengal elections. To counter this allegedly biased narrative, farmers are mobilising social media on a never-before-seen scale, with protesters, especially the youth, taking it upon themselves to create awareness about the challenges faced by farmers. And what’s helping them is alternative media, independent activists, photographers, YouTubers and Instagrammers, to put forth their concerns without any bias or misconstruction of motive. It reminds us the days of Anna Hazare’s movement in 2012, which mobilized the public to bring down the then Government on charges of corruption and the demand for a Jan Lokpal Bill. 

‘Respect Dissent’

* “Citizens are conscience keepers of government in any democratic nation. They cannot be put behind bars simply because they choose to disagree with the State policies. The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the      governments.”

* “Investigating agency can’t be permitted to further restrict the liberty of citizen on the basis of propitious anticipations.”

* “This 5000-year-old civilisation of ours has never been averse to ideas from varied quarters.” 

* “Even our founding fathers accorded due respect to the divergence of opinion by recognising the freedom of speech and expression as an inviolable fundamental right. The right to dissent is firmly enshrined under Article 19 of the Constitution of India.”

* “There are no geographical barriers to communication. A citizen has the fundamental right to use the best means of imparting and receiving communication, as long as the same is permissible under the four corners of law.”

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