The Punjab & Haryana High Court on Friday (30th October) made the observation that "in a democracy, every citizen has a right to voice his/her opinion freely and criticize the functioning of the Government."
The Bench of Justice Sudhir Mittal further remarked that,
"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."
The matter before the Court
The petitioner before the Court sought the grant of regular bail in case FIR No. 84 dated 14.04.2020 registered at Police Station Tanda, District Hoshiarpur. It was submitted that the petitioner had been in custody for over six months.
The FIR was registered 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.
According to the allegations in the FIR, the petitioner went live on Facebook and made statements against the unity and integrity of the Nation. It was also alleged that his statements were 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.
The Court examined the utterances made by the petitioner and came to the conclusion that that the offences of sedition and inciting communal disaffection were not attracted.
The Court also took into account the fact that the petitioner had undergone actual custody of 06 months and 14 days and there is no other criminal case pending/decided against him.
The Court also perused the transcript of the Compact Disc prepared from the live performance of the petitioner on Facebook and observed,
"It appears that the petitioner was unhappy with the lockdown 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."
Further, the Court said,
"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." (emphasis supplied)
The Court also remarked,
"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." (emphasis supplied)
However, the Court also said that such criticism should be done in a decent manner and un-parliamentary language should not be adopted.
Observing thus, the Court thought it fit to grant him regular bail.
It may be noted that the Tripura High Court recently 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, addressing the lawyers at a workshop organised by Praleen Public Charitable Trust at Ahmedabad in 2019, (then) Justice Deepak Gupta of the Supreme Court had spoken at length on the topic "Law of Sedition in India and Freedom of Expression".
He had opined,
"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".
Case title - Jasbir @ Jasvir Singh v. State Of Punjab [Crl. Misc. No.M-19376 of 2020]