Expressing serious concerns over the rampant use of sedition laws, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act(UAPA), and preventive detention against people for expressing dissent, Justice (Retd) Madan B Lokur, former judge of the Supreme Court, said, "State is using an iron hand to curb free speech".
The judge was addressing a virtual discussion on "Freedom of speech and judiciary" organized by Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms (CJAR) and Swaraj Abhiyan in the context of Prashant Bhushan depositing fine of Re 1 in the contempt case.
"Suddenly you have a lot of cases charging people with sedition. Common citizens who say something are charged with sedition", Justice Lokur said. He said that already there are nearly 70 cases of sedition this year itself. Last year, it was nearly 90, he remembered.
"State is using sedition as an iron hand to curb free speech, which I think is an overreaction to people's expression of opinion.", he said.
Apart from the use of sedition law, another method adopted by which State curbs free speech is to crack down on critical opinions by charging them as spreading fake news, Justice Lokur said. He cited the examples of journalists reporting about COVID cases, lack of ventilators, etc., being charged for spreading fake news.
Another method is the misreading of the statements to attribute motives. This happened in the case of Prashant Bhushan, he said.
"I believe he had no intention to break the judiciary. But his statements were misread. He was only expressing his opinion about the judiciary", he said.
Lokur further said the people are put under preventive detention by misinterpreting their speeches and by attributing motives to them.
In this regard, he mentioned the case of Dr Kafeel Khan (without actually naming him) who was detained under the National Security Act over a speech made against the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019.
Justice Lokur said that the Allahabad High Court quashed his detention, after observing that his speech was actually intended to promote national integration and unity. But he had to be under detention for nearly six months as a District Magistrate misinterpreted his speech.
Students, activists, etc are put under jails by misreading their dissenting voices to invoke UAPA against them, he said.
"On the other hand, you have people who talk about violence, about breaking up things. Nothing happens to them", he noted.
Highlighting that there are over 3.40 crore cases pending, he urged that the judiciary should "prioritize its concerns" and said that there was a need to increase transparency in the judiciary.
N. Ram, senior journalist and former editor of 'The Hindu' and social activist Aruna Roy also spoke at the session.RTI activist Anjali Bharadwaj moderated the discussion.