The Indian authorities routinely use vaguely worded, overly broad laws as political tools to silence and harass critics, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.
The government should repeal or amend laws that are used to criminalise peaceful expression.
India’s Constitution protects the right to freedom of speech and expression, but recent and colonial-era laws, such as sedition and criminal defamation, not only remain on the books but are frequently used in an attempt to clampdown on critics.
“India’s abusive laws are the hallmark of a repressive society, not a vibrant democracy,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Putting critics in prison or even forcing them to defend themselves in lengthy and expensive court proceedings undermines the government’s efforts to present India as a modern country in the Internet age committed to free speech and the rule of law.”
The 108-page report, “Stifling Dissent: The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in India,” details how criminal laws are used to limit and chill free speech in India.
One of the most abused laws is the sedition law, which has been used by successive governments to arrest and silence critics. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code prohibits any words, spoken or written, or any signs or visible representation that can cause “hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection,” toward the government.
“India’s courts have largely been protective of freedom of expression but as long as you have bad laws on the books, free speech will remain under threat,” said Ganguly. “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.”
Recommendations given for India were to develop a clear plan and timetable for the repeal or amendment of laws that criminalise peaceful expression, 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 train the police to ensure inappropriate cases are not filed with courts. Train judges on peaceful expression standards so that they dismiss cases that infringe on protected speech.