Trending: Call for Papers Volume 4 | Issue 3: International Journal of Advanced Legal Research [ISSN: 2582-7340]

India and The Right To Dissent


“Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If dissent is not allowed, it might lead to a burst of the pressure cooker of democracy”, the Supreme Court said in a recent case. Labeling dissent as anti-national behavior strikes at the core of democracy.

Dissent can be defined as the expression of opinions that are against the policies of the government. It can also be termed as a sentiment of non-agreement with the existing government. It plays a vital role not only in our moral education but also in the democracy of the nation. The success of a democracy depends upon the right of every citizen to criticize the acts of a government freely. Hence, it is necessary for a country like India to protect its right to dissent, but the history is evident that the government has always tried to curb dissent in the name of nationalism. This article is going to shed light on some of the laws that have been used by the governments to curb dissent.


Section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code deals with the sedition law in India. It was introduced by the British government in the colonial era of 1870 especially to control the growing revolt against the English government. It defines sedition as an act (by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise), brings or attempts to bring hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India. But according to this law, it is subjective as to what can be used to incite hatred or contempt or disaffection towards the government. Though freedom of speech can never be absolute and should be regulated in order to maintain public order, it should never be misused. It is quite possible that acts of healthy disagreement or criticism of the government might be termed as sedition as the government would not like to risk even a single vote just for the sake of an ideal democracy. This possibility has often been used to curb dissent in the past.

Kedar Nath Singh vs. State of Bihar (1962)

This landmark case was the first-ever case of sedition in the post-independent era. Kedar Nath Singh, a member of the Forward Communist Party in Bihar had commented on the Congress Party that was in power during that time. His extreme speech had angered the government and thus a case of sedition was filed against him in the Supreme Court of India. The court said that there lies a huge difference between inciting disaffection to the country through a seditious act aimed against the government and a mere criticism against the party in power.

Dr. Binayak Sen vs. State of Chhattisgarh (2007) –

This case emerged at a time when there were growing insurgencies in the state of Chhatisgarh. Dr. Binayak, who was a famous human rights activist other than a paediatrician, was charged under sedition stating that he had passed on letters from a Maoist prisoner outside the jail. But Dr. Sen, in his defence, said that he had been charged only because of his heavy criticism against a vigilante group that killed tribals and villagers to clear lands that were rich in iron and bauxite ores in the name of Maoist activities. In fact, he was under constant surveillance during his hours of treatment of the prisoners. Salwa Judum, the group he referred to, was supported by the state government of Chhatisgarh who contested that the group was only trying to reduce the number rising number of insurgencies in the state.

Dr. Sen was arrested but in 2008 was awarded the Jonathan Mann Award for global health and human rights. This led to worldwide criticism against the government of Chhatisgarh. Later, 22 Nobel laureates wrote to the Indian Government requesting to release Dr. Sen so that he could receive the award he deserved well.

Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India (2012)

This is one of the landmark cases that shook the entire country. In 2012, after the death of Bala Saheb Thackrey, a college student from Mumbai posted on Facebook criticizing the shutdown of the city to mark the death of the Shiv Sena leader. One of her friends had just liked her post. Later, both the girls were charged under the sedition law along with Section 66A of the IT Act.

Shreya Singhal, a law student, had filed a petition to scrap down Section 66A of the IT Act which sought to be in violation of Article 19 (1) of the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court struck down the law, and stated that no person can be tried for sedition for the sake of unpopular speech which is not actually offensive or does not incite violence or disaffection in any case. There’s a difference between ‘advocacy’ and ‘incitement’ and one cannot be tried for mere advocacy.


The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act was brought into force in 1967 after the recommendation of the Committee on National Integration and Regionalism in 1963. This law barred unlawful activities and associations in India. Its main objective was to obtain power for coping with activities directed against the integrity and sovereignty of the nation. But even after several amendments in the law, it still remains subjective as to what constitutes ‘unlawful activity’. The use of words, ‘like to threaten’ or ‘likely to strike terror’ can easily be misused as a weapon in the hands of the government to curb dissent. Further, the pre-charge sheet time given to the police to investigate a case, failing which a default bail can be granted, is extended to 180 days.
There have been many such cases in the recent past where the UAPA has been misused. Activists like G.N. Saibaba, Sudhir Dhawale, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen, Rona Wilson, Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, Gautam Navlakha, and Akhil Gogoi are some of the names that have been arrested under this draconian law just because they had the guts to raise their voice against the injustice done by the government.

 Umar Khalid –

This is one very famous name that has been tagged as a terrorist even without any single evidence proving him to be so. A student activist from JNU, had been earlier arrested on the charges of sedition when he along with his batch-mates raised slogans criticizing the government. In the recent event, where he has been booked under UAPA, he has also been charged with IPC Sections 302 (murder) 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, etc.), 124A (sedition). According to the police, he along with his friends played a major role in inciting the Delhi riots of February 2020. 

He had been accused of planning the riot and giving provocative speeches against the government. But according to him, he was only leading a peaceful protest against NRC and CAA. While those criticizing his arrest argue that dissenting or protesting peacefully against the government does not amount to causing “disaffection against India”, the police have contested that the riots were a result of a conspiracy to “overthrow the government machinery in the state”.
This shows how time and again the draconian laws which were made with an objective to control any such behaviour that provokes disaffection against the law, has instead been used as a weapon to curb dissent of the citizens.

While delivering the 15th P D memorial lecture, Justice Chandrachud said, “A legitimate government committed to deliberate dialogue does not seek to restrict political contestation but welcomes it…A state committed to the rule of law ensures that the state apparatus is not employed to curb legitimate and peaceful protest but to create spaces conducive for deliberation”. This entirely sums up the purpose of the right to dissent in a democratic nation. Even though the governments in the past as well as present, have been seen to use the laws in every possible way to curb dissent, we can only hope that a change will be made in such affairs in the future, or rather we can be the change that we want to see. The decision is ours.


1. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/justice-d-y-chandrachud-caa-protest-democracy-anti-national-6269831/
2. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/southasia/2019/10/04/long-read-the-art-of-dissolving-dissent-indias-sedition-law-as-an-instrument-to-regulate-public-opinion/

 3. https://homegrown.co.in/article/47919/5-landmark-cases-that-changed-the-way-we-look-at-indias-sedition-law
4. https://www.livelaw.in/news-updates/prof-gn-sai-baba-bail-rejected-bombay-hc-143836
7. https://thewire.in/caste/meet-the-five-arrested-in-the-bhima-koregaon-case
8. https://thewire.in/law/unwilling-to-give-delhi-high-court-details-of-navlakhas-hasty-transfer-nia-gets-sc-stay
8. https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/umar-khalid-uapa-in-delhi-riots-arrest-jnu-pota-tada-6597705/
Image Source
Author: Smruti Das

13 thoughts on “India and The Right To Dissent”

  1. Nice article, very well written.

    One thing i quote that it is rightly said by Howard Zinn that " dissent is highest form of patriotism"

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *