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Dissent against the Govt not seditious, says SC dismissing plea against Farooq Abdullah

The Supreme Court Wednesday dismissed a plea seeking sedition charges under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code against former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah over some of his reported remarks after the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution stating that “the expression of a view which is a dissent from a decision taken by the Central government itself cannot be said to be seditious”.

A bench of Justices S K Kaul and Hemant Gupta said “there is nothing in the statement which we find so offensive as to give a cause of action for a court to initiate proceedings.”

It added that “the petitioners have nothing to do with the subject matter and this is clearly a case of publicity interest litigation for the petitioners only to get their names in press”.

“We discourage such endeavours”, said the bench which went on to dismiss the petition and imposed a cost of Rs 50,000 on petitioners Rajat Sharma, Secretary and Trustee, Viswa Guru India Vision of Sardar Patel; and Uttar Pradesh resident Neh Srivastava. The fine is to be deposited with the SC Advocates Welfare Fund within four weeks.

The petition said that on October 11, 2020, Abdullah, who is a Member of Parliament, and President of National Conference, had on live TV said that “ye property tumhare baap ka nahi hai and (that) he will get Article 370 restored with the help of China”.

The plea added that the National Conference had stated that Abdullah had “never said” anything to the effect of involving China.

The plea also referred to BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra’s remarks critiquing Abdullah over the said comments.

The petitioners said the former J&K CM’s statement “is seditious” and that “he is propagating anti-national thoughts in the mind of innocent people of Jammu and Kashmir…and he deserves to be removed from the membership of Parliament”.

The apex court’s observations come amid growing criticism of the government over the frequent use of this colonial provision to allegedly quell dissent. The top court has also had the occasion to deal with petitions in which the provision has been invoked, some of them still pending.

This also comes close on the heels of the observations by a trial court in Delhi that “offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of governments”, while granting bail to Bengaluru activist Disha Ravi arrested in connection with the Toolkit FIR.

Incidentally, on February 9, an SC bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde had rejected a plea urging it to re-examine the constitutional validity of Section 124A.

The bench said that the SC had in the past laid down that there should be appropriate cause of action (materials to sue) to challenge a law and the petition, which was filed by a group of lawyers, lacked this and that the petitioners were not affected parties in any case.

The plea had contended that the provision which was used by the British against Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak is still being “grossly abused” to stifle freedom of speech and expression of those who choose to express dissent against policies of the Governments in power.

The petitioners pointed out that in 1962, an SC Constitution bench upheld the validity of section by reading it down but after six decades of experience, the judgment “requires reconsideration especially in the light of spate of sedition charges imposed against various persons speaking out against the governments of the day. Section 124-A has a chilling effect on any dissenting free speech and/or criticism of the government which is an essence of democracy.”

The petitioners said that there was no institutional responsibility of the police in case of misuse of the provision and no procedural safeguards in the Code of Criminal Procedure. Even charging somebody under it endangers their right to live with dignity as they are then portrayed as anti-national, the petitioners had said.

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