In a well-worded, well-analysed, well-reasoned and well articulated judgment titled Jasbir Singh @ Jasvir Singh v. State of Punjab [Crl. Misc. No. M-19376 of 2020] delivered just recently on October 30, 2020, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has minced no words to convey unequivocally that State needs to be more tolerant while invoking laws pertaining to sedition and religious disaffection. It goes without saying as can be gauged by the past couple of Supreme Court rulings that, “Laws pertaining to sedition and religious disaffection have to be used sparingly and not excessively at the drop of a hat”. There can be no denying or disputing it!
It also goes without saying that Punjab and Haryana High Court in this leading case has very rightly, remarkably and recently held in no uncertain terms that, “In a democracy, every citizen has a right to voice his/her opinion freely and criticize the functioning of the Government.” India has no right to call itself a free country if the people don’t even have the right to freely criticize the functioning of the government. It has also been rightly held in this notable case that, “The state needs to be more tolerant and circumspect while invoking laws pertaining to sedition and religious disaffection.” Very rightly so!
To start with, this latest, landmark and extremely laudable judgment authored by Justice Sudhir Mittal of the Punjab and Haryana High Court sets the ball rolling by first and foremost observing in the opening para that, “The petitioner seeks grant of regular bail in case FIR No. 84 dated 14.04.2020 registered at Police Station Tanda, District Hoshiarpur under Sections 115, 124-A, 153-A, 505(2), 295, 188, 269, 270, 271, 506 IPC, Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and Section 54 of Disaster Management Act, 2005.”
To put things in perspective, it is then envisaged that, “According to the allegations in the FIR, the petitioner went live on Facebook and made statements against the unity and integrity of the Nation. His statements were also aimed at causing communal disaffection. Thus, the aforementioned FIR was registered inter alia for the offences of sedition, hurting religious sentiments and causing communal disaffection.”
More tellingly, it is then pointed out by the Court that, “Learned counsel for the petitioner submits that the petitioner has been in custody for over six months now. Challan was presented on 09.07.2020 but charges have yet not been framed as committal order has not been passed. Thus, the trial is not likely to be concluded at an early date.”
As anticipated, it is then pointed out that the Court then further points out that the learned lawyer while pleading for bail submits that, “There is no other criminal case pending against the petitioner. Further, an examination of the utterances made by the petitioner shows that the offences of sedition and inciting communal disaffection are not attracted. Thus, the petitioner may be granted regular bail.”
As it turned out, the Court then further observes that, “Custody certificate dated 29.10.2020 has been produced in Court. The same is taken on record. According to this certificate, the petitioner has undergone actual custody of 6 months and 14 days and there is no other criminal case pending/decided against him.”
What’s more, it is then pointed out by the Court that, “Learned State counsel has circulated a transcript of the live performance of the petitioner on Facebook and I have gone through the same.”
Most significantly, most remarkably and most appropriately, what forms the cornerstone of this leading judgment is then commendably observed by Justice Sudhir Mittal of the Punjab and Haryana High Court that, “It appears that the petitioner was unhappy with the lock down imposed due to the Corona Virus and the way the pandemic was being handled by the Government of India as well as the Punjab Government. Thus, he has criticized the functioning of the said Governments. Definitely, intemperate and abusive language has been used against high officials of the Governments as well as against the elected representatives, but the same does not amount to exciting disaffection towards the Government established by law or to excite hatred against it. It also does not amount to inciting religious disaffection or disruption of communal harmony. It is an expression of dissatisfaction with the functioning of the Government and criticism of its policies. In a democracy every citizen has a right to voice his/her opinion freely and criticize the functioning of the Government. However, the same should be done in a decent manner and un-parliamentary language should not be adopted. At the same time, the State needs to be more tolerant and circumspect while invoking laws pertaining to sedition and religious disaffection. Current tendency to the contrary has been frowned upon by the Supreme Court of India.”
Needless to say, it cannot be lightly dismissed that none other than the former Supreme Court Judge – Justice (retd) Madan B Lokur had said categorically that, “The government is using the sedition law with an iron hand to curb free speech in an overreaction to people’s opinion.” He also said that another method by which the state is curbing free speech is to crack down on critical opinions by charging them of spreading fake news. It is high time and government must now desist from doing so!
To be sure, it must be noted that just recently the Tripura High Court also in WP(C) 606/2020 observed that the right of freedom of speech and expression would include the freedom of being critical of the public administration or authority. The Bench of Chief Justice Akil Kureshi further observed that, “Any inroad into such freedom howsoever stealthily made, constitutional court will step in.”
Notably, it cannot be overlooked that while addressing the lawyers at a workshop organized by Praleen Public Charitable Trust at Ahmedabad in 2019, (then) Justice Deepak Gupta of the Supreme Court had spoken at length on the topic titled “Law of Sedition in India and Freedom of Expression”. He had opined that, “The last few years have given rise to a number of cases where the law of sedition or creating disharmony have been misused rampantly by the police to arrest and humiliate people who have not committed the crime of sedition as laid down by the Constitution Bench of Supreme Court.”
While granting bail to the petitioner, Justice Sudhir Mittal of the Punjab and Haryana High Court then observes succinctly and suavely that, “The petitioner has been in custody for 06 months and 14 days and the trial is not likely to be concluded at an early date. There is no other criminal case pending against him and thus, I deem it appropriate to grant him regular bail.”
While continuing in the same vein, Justice Sudhir Mittal then further holds that, “Accordingly, the petition is allowed and the petitioner is directed to be released on regular bail on his furnishing bail and surety bonds to the satisfaction of the trial Court/Duty Magistrate concerned.”
For the sake of clarification, it is then finally observed in the last para that, “Nothing stated herein above shall be construed to be an expression of opinion on the merits of the case.”
It needs no Albert Einstein to conclude that all the governments must always adhere to what the Punjab and Haryana High Court has laid down so boldly, bluntly and brilliantly in this leading case just like it has done so many times earlier also! At the same time, it is also made amply clear in this landmark and laudable judgment that people also must use decent language while expressing dissent and un-parliamentary language should not be adopted for the same! Why can’t dissent be expressed in a polite manner? People too must learn to be more polite. There can certainly be no denying or disputing it!