Updated: Aug 7, 2021
Samrudhi Elizabeth Saju*
As we struggle through the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative that we have the ability to stay informed about the true situation of the country and this is facilitated through journalists. However, this duty is prevented from being fulfilled by the rampant use of the sedition law against journalists and activists who speak in a negative manner against the ruling government. In the case of Vinod Dua, we see how statements of facts can lead to accusations of sedition. The unbridled use of this law to suppress dissent acts as a hindrance to the free press which is an essential core of any democratic nation. Therefore, it is important to discern the remedies suggested by the court and glean how they are not sufficient. This case displays the need for better mechanisms that ensure that frivolous cases of sedition are not used to harass journalists and activists, thereby securing the fundamental rights which have been guaranteed to them by the Constitution.
Sedition, Misuse, Remedies, Free Press, Fundamental Rights, Dissent.
Sedition & the Vinod Dua Talk Show
Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, commonly known as the sedition law, has been a controversial one. The section falls under offences against the state and seeks to penalise any writing or speech which incites a feeling of ill-will against the lawful government and threatens violence against it, leading to the disruption of public order. It claims that mere disapprobation of policies of the government, that amount to fair criticism will not fall under the same. However, there have been several cases of sedition filed and most often against those who critique the government’s policies – namely journalists and activists. These include frivolous complaints against university students, authors (Arundhati Roy), cartoonists (Aseem Trivedi) and even villagers (in Tamil Nadu). The most recent individual, who has been accused under the sedition law is journalist Mr. Vinod Dua, who talked about the state of the country in the midst of the pandemic in his talk show. It was claimed by the complainants that this threatened to upset public order and was done with the intention of inciting violence within the country and against the government. While the Supreme Court on June 3rd ruled that this was not a case of sedition, it is however important to understand the consequences of the misuse of this law and its impact on the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution – specifically, the right to freedom of speech and expression. It is important to analyse whether the judgement was enough to ensure the freedom of the press, especially in the middle of a raging pandemic when it is imperative that all the citizens of the country stay accurately informed about the developments and issues concerning the nation.
In Vinod Dua vs. Union of India & Ors., the journalist came under fire for statements made on his talk show regarding the possibility of food riots happening in the country, the inadequate testing facilities and PPE kits available and the plight of the migrant labourers throughout the country. It was claimed that his statements were intended to cause panic and misrepresented the true state of the country. The massive movement of workers was attributed to his statements along with the incitement of riots. The court relied on the Kedar Nath Singh case and other historical judgements like the very first case under the sedition law – the Bangobashicase, Queen Empress v. Balgangaddhar Tilakand Niharendu Dutt Majumdar v. the King Emperorto understand the scope of the sedition law. In the first two cases, sedition was given a very broad definition, with any attempt to subvert the authority of the government falling under this section. However, in the Niharendu Dutt Majumdarcase the court deemed that it is only when there is the possibility of inciting violence involved with these actions that it would amount to sedition. It is this definition that the court adopts in Kedar Nath Singh. In this case, the court states that only those words which seek to unlawfully and violently subvert the government are penalised under the law on sedition. Strong words that merely disapprove of a particular policy of the government and seek to change it lawfully will not amount to an offence. The essence of the law has thus been established as inciting any sort of disloyalty against the government which would eventually lead to a mass disruption of public order and providing a small window allowing anarchy, which is unacceptable as it denies the fulfilment of everyone’s rights. In addition to this, the case also talks about the extent to which the right to freedom of speech and expression can be curtailed by this law. Since the right is not absolute and can be restricted for public order, the law, therefore, is valid.
'Protection' Awarded to the Journalists
In the Vinod Dua case, the court said that every journalist is entitled to protection as the law on sedition can only be used according to the terms of the scope that has been laid down in the case of Kedar Nath Singh. However, this protection is not enough and this law which apparently “strikes the correct balance between individual fundamental rights and the interest of public order” does not do so. The court states that journalists may be charged with sedition only if their words incite violence and disrupt public order, yet that has not stopped this law from being used to shut down any and every form of dissent against the ruling regime. Even though they are awarded ‘protection’ from these charges, the fact that the law is still being applied as a deterrent on the free press is an alarming issue. Journalists are individuals who have a duty to inform the public, especially in times of grave distress such as now. The constant harassment of journalists who critique the government, like Vinod Dua talking about the pandemic or others like Siddharth Varadarajan, Mrinal Pande, Paresh Nath and many more who reported on the recent farm laws, hinders them from fulfilling this duty. Even if the court finds them not guilty of sedition, they still have to be prosecuted for giving fair criticism of the government’s functioning. The result of this is that journalists who wish to bring forward the truth to the country would be hesitant to do so because of the fear of being accused of sedition, leading to a time-consuming process of clearing their name. For instance – in the case of Mr. Vinod Dua, it took the accused journalist almost a year’s time to be cleared of the charges charged towards him. Thus, even though the law can be applied only in the scope of what has been defined by the Supreme court which leaves room for fair criticism, this is still not enough protection available as there is yet the scope of infringement on the freedom of speech and expression in an unreasonable manner.
The Way Forward
As a result, a mere statement that all journalists have protection is insufficient to ensure the protection of the free press, which is essential to democracy in any context. There has to either be a repealing of this law that has been put to use since colonial times to suppress dissent, or there has to be some kind of penalty imposed for frivolous charges of sedition being made up against anyone who talks about the ruling regime in a negative manner. The law on sedition has been amended several times, expanding it from a single sentence to one with three explanations which protect mere criticism of the government from being treated as a crime and yet there have still been several cases of sedition filed against activists and journalists who have not incited violence and have expressed a mere disapprobation towards the government’s policies. This implies the explanations added to the law have not been sufficient in dealing with the ambiguity of the section, which has earlier even included the excitement of ill-will of any sort against the government. The broad strokes with which this section talks of any attempt to incite violence against the lawfully established government which may disrupt public order, emphasis supplied on may, enable the misuse of this law to be actualised. As seen in the Vinod Dua case, the FIRs do not even require the actual offence to be made out before a proceeding may be brought to court. Even if the repealing of the law or amending it to uncover the exact nature of what constitutes an attempt to negate public order is not possible, a penalty for frivolous cases or a preliminary inquiry should be conducted before a first information report is filed claiming sedition as in the case for public servants as stated in P. Sirajuddin, or a prima facie case of the accusation needs to be made out as is done in the cases of medical negligence as laid down in Jacob Mathew v. the State of Punjab. By presenting a prima facie case, it ensures that irrelevant or vindictive cases are not brought before the court and protects the doctors as well. This standard if applied to the sedition law would ensure that this law does not act as a deterrent on journalists and activists who wish to write and speak about the true state of the country.
In conclusion, section 124-A or the sedition law has often been used as a tool by ruling regimes to suppress any form of dissent, which is essential for the proper functioning of a democracy. In the particular case of Vinod Dua vs. Union of India, we see how even an empty accusation of sedition can act as a hindrance for journalists who then get occupied with the judicial processes of proving their innocence – ultimately serving as a warning to those who wish to utilise the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression granted to them in the Constitution. The misuse of this law is rampant, and a mere statement that the journalists have protection and the ambiguous law will only be applied as per its scope defined by the court is not enough. There has to be a mechanism in place to ensure that only actual cases of individuals causing violence to erupt with their negative representations of the government are filed – perhaps through a system of preliminary inquiry when charges of sedition are brought up by an impartial officer as has been established before, a penalty for frivolous cases of sedition so as to deter its misuse or a complete revamping of the sedition law, which needs to be scrapped and redefined in less ambiguous terms, making the misuse of it much more difficult.
 Queen Empress v. Jogendra Chunder Bose (1892) 19 I.L.R. Cal. 35.  Queen Empress v. Balgangaddhar Tilak (1898) 22 I.L.R. Bom. 112.  Niharendu Dutt Majumdar v. The King Emperor (1942) F.C.R. 38.  Id.  supra note 1.  P. Sirajuddin v. State of Madras, (1970) 1 SCC 595.
[*] Samrudhi Elizabeth Saju is a second-year undergraduate student from Jindal Global Law School, India.
Preferred Citation – Samrudhi Elizabeth Saju, “Vinod Dua v. Union of India & Ors.: An Analysis of the Judgement and the Law on Sedition", Syin & Sern Law Review, Published on 6th August 2021.