India: Sedition, Defamation Laws Face Review

Akash Vashishtha
New Delhi
161028-IN-sedition-620.jpg An Indian activist holds a sign during a protest against the February arrests of Jawaharlal Nehru University students on sedition charges, March 15, 2016.

The Law Commission of India, the government’s top advisory body on legal reforms, will meet next week to deliberate on recommendations for changing the country’s sedition and defamation laws, its chairman told BenarNews.

The commission will host a conference of criminal law experts, eminent jurists and senior journalists the first week in November to deliberate on reforms needed on the two laws that were framed in 1860 under British colonial rule, commission chief Justice Balbir Singh Chauhan said.

The review comes at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is facing accusations of using the archaic laws to stifle dissent.

“We are reviewing the whole criminal law of the (present) day, and sedition and defamation are parts of it. We are looking to reform the Indian Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code and Evidence Act to make them relevant in the present-day context,” Chauhan told Benar.

“The purpose is to resolve problems through a debate on the main issues. We are involving all stakeholders. … We would work in the most democratic manner. We want to know everybody’s opinion,” he said.

Earlier this year, the government came under criticism for filing sedition charges against several students at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. They were accused of seditious speech for allegedly raising anti-India slogans to protest the 2013 execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist convicted for his role in a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in 2001.

Since coming to power in May 2014, Modi’s government has blacklisted several thousand social and environmental NGOs, such as Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation, on grounds of indulging in anti-industrial development activities perceived to be against national interests.

The government has also slapped dissenters with defamation charges, with critics calling it an “attempt to suppress voices against government functionaries.”

In December, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley filed a defamation suit against Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who belongs to the rival Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), for alleging that he had benefitted financially during his 13-year stint as head of the Delhi District Cricket Association (DDCA).

Besides a criminal case, Jaitley, one the country’s top lawyers, also filed a civil suit against Kejriwal, seeking damages of 100 million rupees (U.S. $1.5 million).

Fear of government interference

Amid fears that reform of the sedition and defamation laws could be tilted toward the government’s interest, free speech activists said the review must be carried out after due consultation from experts.

“We welcome the review of these colonial and archaic laws. The Supreme Court has already issued directions in this matter, but they have not been implemented. It would be meaningful only if the laws are revisited in a democratic manner. The reforms should not be regressive,” information rights activist Anjali Bhardwaj told BenarNews.

The BJP government insisted that the review of the two laws was being done in the country’s best interest.

“The government is thinking of an audit of the [sedition and defamation] laws to identify the loopholes and make the laws more relevant in today’s age. The BJP and the government are interested in whatever is required for the country,” party spokesman Bizay Sonkar Shastri told BenarNews.

Senior criminal lawyer Amit Khemka said the decision to review the laws should not be viewed with the presumption that the government will interfere in the process to suit its interests.

“The demand to review is more by those not in the government. And if the government has sanctioned the review, how can its motive be questioned unless something oblique comes out,” Khemka told BenarNews.


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