Journalists Patricia Mukhim and Anuradha Bhasin moved the Supreme Court on Monday to challenge the constitutional validity of the sedition law. Ms Mukhim is a Meghalaya-based columnist and the editor of the Shillong Times. Ms Bhasin is the editor of the Kashmir Times.
Earlier today, Leichombam Erendro, a Manipur-based activist arrested in May on sedition charges – for writing “cow dung and cow urine don’t work” on Facebook – was released from jail after a Supreme Court notice that said his “detention (is a) violation of right to life and personal liberty“.
Journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem, who was arrested at the same time as Mr Erendro and on the same charges, remains in jail.
In their petition, Ms Mukhim and Ms Bhasin say the “use of sedition to intimidate, silence and punish journalists has continued unrestrained…”
The objective of maintaining “public order” can be achieved by less restrictive means, they have argued, adding, as many others have done before them, that the sedition charge casts a “chilling effect on the exercise of the right to free speech and expression”.
The petition further states that words like ‘hatred’, ‘disaffection’ and ‘disloyalty’ that characterise use of the sedition charge are “incapable of precise construction, and are hit by the doctrine of vagueness and overbreadth, thereby falling foul of Article 14 of the Constitution”.
Article 14 guarantees all persons equality before the law.
The petition also refers to national crime records data to underline what the Supreme Court said about the sedition law last week – that it has an abysmally low conviction rate.
NCRB data, the journalists said in their petition, shows a steep increase in sedition cases from 2016 to 2019 – roughly 160 per cent. The conviction rate in 2019, however, was less than 3.5 per cent.
Last week the Supreme Court, in a significant observation, called the British-era sedition law “colonial” and asked the government if it was still needed 75 years after Independence.
The law is a serious threat to the functioning of institutions and holds “enormous power” for misuse with no accountability for the Executive, the court said.
The court today also agreed to hear a fresh challenge to the controversial law – one mounted by a former Army officer. Major-General SG Vombatkere (retd) had also challenged the constitutional validity of the law on grounds it causes a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech and expression.