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Misuse of sedition laws breaches functioning of institutions, says Chief Justice

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Chief Justice of India NV Ramana has dubbed the misuse of sedition laws as a “serious breach of functioning of institutions” and asked the Centre to explain why it still retained the colonial-era law in the statute books when it had done away with so many other archaic laws.

“There is no dispute that it is a colonial law. It was used to suppress the freedom movement… used to silence Gandhi, Tilak. Is it still necessary after 75 years of Independence,” the CJI asked Attorney General KK Venugopal, who, along with Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appeared for the Centre in a petition filed by retired major general SG Vombatkere for doing away with the law.

In his short summary during Thursday’s hearing, the CJI gave many reasons why the sedition law should be repealed. But the AG resisted the idea. He suggested the misuse of the law could be curtailed if the court laid down parameters for the law’s use as originally intended. “There is no need to strike down the law,” Venugopal said.

The CJI, however, brushed aside the argument by pointing out the abysmal conviction rate under Section 124A of the IPC which made sedition a criminal offence. “There is minimal conviction under the charge,” said the CJI, heading a bench also comprising Justices AS Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy. The CJI said the sedition law had turned into a tool for misuse, “like a saw in the hands of a carpenter who when asked to cut wood starts cutting the forest”.

In this context, he referred to the misuse of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act. It was used by the executive to charge citizens even after it was struck down, the CJI said. “There is no accountability to prevent such misuse.” He wondered if the sedition law should continue to exist in this backdrop. “The government has repealed many such colonial era laws. I don’t know why the government is not looking at this,” the CJI said.

One party in power may use it against another to suppress the latter “if it doesn’t want to hear its voice” and ensure that it does not survive, he said. Eventually, the CJI issued notices to the Centre on the petition argued by advocate PB Suresh. SG Mehta accepted the notice on behalf of the Centre. The case will be listed later, the CJI said. The hearing date will be decided after the CJI checks the status of a similar case before Justice UU Lalit, in which the Editors Guild of India is the petitioner. A third plea against Section 124A has been filed by former BJP minister Arun Shourie. All petitions are likely to be taken up together.

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