Commenting about the 'toolkit' which led to the arrest of 21-year old climate activist Disha Ravi, former Supreme Court judge Justice Deepak Gupta said that he could not see anything "seditious" about the document.
"Every citizen of this country has a right to oppose the government so long as the opposition is peaceful", said Justice Deepak Gupta during a panel discussion on NDTV conducted by journalist Sreenivasan Jain, on the lacunae in the legal proceedings pertaining to Ravi's arrest.
On 14th February, Ravi was remanded to a 5-day custody by a Delhi Magistrate. Ravi had been arrested from Bengaluru in a case registered over the "toolkit" shared by international activist Greta Thunberg related to the farmers' protest on social media for offences relating to sedition by creating disaffection against India, spreading of communal disharmony, criminal conspiracy etc.
Justice Gupta, who was present along with senior lawyers Rebecca M. John, Sidharth Luthra and Vikas Singh, and Advocate Abhinav Chandrachud, stated that the arrest of Ravi was an attack on freedom of speech and expression, and that every citizen had the right to oppose the government peacefully.
After saying that he read the 'toolkit' document as available in the public domain, the former judge commented :
"I see that there is nothing in the toolkit on anything with regard to violence or anything with regard to inciting people…I don't see what is seditious about this document. One may or may not agree with the protestors, that is a different matter. But to say that this is sedition is totally not understanding the law", remarked Justice Gupta about the "toolkit" which had landed Ravi in 5-day custody.
Justice Gupta referred to the 1962 Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar case, wherein the constitutional validity of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code was upheld by the Supreme Court, and noted that sedition could only take place if there was incitement to violence or public disorder, which was absent in the instant case.
"The sedition law was framed by the imperialistic, colonialist ruler, the British empire, who wanted to rule over India. Even at that time, the law made sedition a grave crime, punishable with life imprisonment…I was hoping that with our experiences of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi being sent behind bars for sedition, we would have abrogated this law, or at least toned down this clause. But, unfortunately, this law is being misused", said Justice Gupta, who has spoken earlier also about the rampant misuse of sedition law to curb dissent.
On being asked about whether there had been application of judicial mind while sending Ravi to judicial custody, Justice Gupta responded, "I've seen many cases where they seem to have forgotten that bail not jail is the rule. At this stage, they don't even read the documents. They just see what the police asks them. I know a detailed scrutiny at this stage is not required, but at least they should apply their mind. The police may not have read the Supreme Court judgement, but I would have expected the judge to have at least read it".
Senior lawyer Sidharth Luthra, while echoing Justice Gupta's sentiments, noted that sedition was being used at the drop of a hat. Not going into the merits of the case, Luthra stated that the bringing of Ravi in Delhi without being produced before the Magistrate in Bengaluru would need to be scrutinised, along with the constitutional parameters under Article 22 of the Constitution of India such as access to a lawyer etc.
Vikas Singh, Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court, observed that the State had become too intolerant to dissent.
"We have the right to free speech which is not being conferred directly to the Press as is done in the US. Here it is given only to the citizens of India…this will go to retweeting something", said Singh.
Rebecca M. John, another senior lawyer, also weighed in and remarked that there was a need to separate fact from fiction.
"I am critical of this [Ravi's arrest] for the following reasons. I oppose weekend arrests and productions. Delhi Police could have waited for a Monday arrest and a Tuesday production. By producing an accused person on a Sunday, you are basically ensuring that her legal rights are compromised because it's very difficult for lawyers to be present. Most lawyers don't even know that their clients are being produced in court", said John.
John also shed a light on the "cat and mouse game" that happens between Delhi Police and defence counsels wherein the latter are not even informed of the time and place pertaining to the production. In wake of this, Ravi's lawyer of choice could not be present and this was a serious infringement of her rights.
Lawyer Dr. Abhinav Chandrachud, who was also a part of the panel, made a statement on bringing the offence of sedition in line with the English law before 1832 which categorised the offence as a mere misdemeanour.