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Human rights report accuses Modi govt of silencing dissent by using sedition, criminal defamation tools

NEW DELHI: Even as the Narendra Modi government begins celebrations for its second anniversary on May 26, a report released by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday accused the government for silencing dissent by routinely using ‘draconian’ laws such as the sedition provisions of the penal code, the criminal defamation law, and laws dealing with hate speech to silence dissent.

Attacking the central government, the report stated that the Modi government has time and again used these laws to crush dissent like previous governments, instead of addressing them, contradicting the prime minister’s stand on the freedom of speech.

As per the 108-page report, titled ‘Stifling Dissent — The Criminalisation of Peaceful Expression in India’, these ‘vaguely worded’ and ‘prone to misuse’ laws have been repeatedly used for political purposes against critics at the national and state level and that the sedition law, which has been used by successive governments to arrest and silence critics, is the most abused law.

Calling on the government to repeal or amend such laws – now used to criminalise peaceful expression – to bring them in line with international law and India’s treaty commitments, the report said that even though the Indian Constitution protects the right to freedom of speech and expression, recent and colonial-era laws, such as sedition and criminal defamation, they are frequently used to ‘silence and harass’ critics.

It said criminal defamation laws should be abolished because they can lead to very harsh consequences, including imprisonment.

To explain the stand, the report cited arrest of student leader Kanhaiya Kumar and the ensuing unrest at the Jawaharlal Nehru University earlier this year. There was widespread criticism across the country for the sedition law after Kumar was arrested this year.

“Vague laws are used to stifle political dissent, harass journalists, restrict activities by non-governmental organisations, arbitrarily block Internet sites or take down content, and target marginalised communities and religious minorities,” it said.

“It is an enormous irony that India projects itself worldwide as a government embracing technology and innovation, yet is relying on century-old laws to clamp down on critics. India has an opportunity and the responsibility to launch reforms immediately, which could set a positive example to other countries in the region similarly bogged down by antiquated laws,” it said.

“Laws to regulate social media, such as India’s Information Technology Act, can and do easily become tools to criminalize speech, often to protect powerful political figures. Section 66A of that act, which criminalizes a broad range of speech, has been repeatedly used to arrest those who criticize the authorities and to censor content,” the report stated.

The report recommended that India should develop a clear plan and timetable for the repeal or amendment of laws that criminalise peaceful expression.

Authorities should also drop all pending charges and investigations against those who are facing prosecution for the exercise of their right to freedom of expression and assembly and should train the police to ensure inappropriate cases are not filed with courts.

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