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Free speech laws need an overhaul

It is no secret that freedom of speech is under assault in India; in fact, it has been since the first government of independent India under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and a pliant Parliament amended the Constitution to impose “reasonable restrictions” to Article 19(1)(A). These reasonable restrictions include anything that affects the “interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”

It would be fairly clear to any right-thinking individual that these restrictions pretty much cover the entire gamut of “getting offended”. Now, let’s see what Section 124A of Indian Penal Code says: Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”

It is under this sedition clause of the IPC and two other violations of the Indian Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008, and Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act (1971) that cartoonist Aseem Trivedi has been arrested by the Mumbai Police. He has apparently insulted national institutions such as the State emblem, Parliament House, etc, in his cartoons.

The police (and later the courts) can claim that they are merely following the law, and you could find little to object to that. What is needed, therefore, is a complete overhaul of the laws that restrict freedom of speech and expression in India. We have, for long, lived in a democracy that gives arbitrary and disproportionate powers to only a certain set of people who are free to subjectively interpret the law. It is time that “We, The People” demand that those powers be fair and equitable to all of India’s citizens.

Until that happens, we will only be a sham democracy.

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