India Top Court to Consider Quashing Colonial-Era Sedition Law

The Supreme Court stands in New Delhi. (Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg)

India Top Court to Consider Quashing Colonial-Era Sedition Law

India’s Supreme Court has agreed to examine whether the nation’s colonial-era sedition law falls foul of world’s largest democracy’s constitution.

Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana on Thursday sought views from the federal government and the country’s attorney general on petitions by activists and lawyers seeking quashing the law. The colonial law was used to silence the freedom movement under the British rule and “continuation of this law after 75 years is unfortunate,” Ramana, who heads a three-judge panel, said during the hearing.

States run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party have repeatedly come under criticism for charging protesting students, farmers, activists, and journalists with the stringent sedition law that makes securing bail difficult. During the hearing, Ramana said the rate of successful convictions in sedition cases is very low, showing its possible misuse to suppress dissent.

The judges said they were concerned that the law carries “enormous power of misuse” but no accountability of the executive. The court has not yet given a date for hearing the case.

India was in April downgraded to a “partly free” democracy for the first time since 1997 in an annual ranking of democracies by the U.S.-government funded research group Freedom House. The decline was partly “due to the frequent use of sedition and other charges in recent years to deter free speech, including discussion of a discriminatory citizenship law and the COVID-19 pandemic”, the research group said in the report.

“Colonial-era and other laws are increasingly invoked to penalize perceived criticism of the government by ordinary citizens,” the report found. “Activists, Muslims, and members of other marginalized communities are routinely charged with sedition for criticizing the government and its policies.”

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