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"I read maybe about 70 or 80 (sedition) cases have already been filed this year. Last year, it was about 70. In 2020, it is already 70 or 80. And i will not be surprised if it was beyond 100", Justice Lokur said.
"Sedition is being used as a sort of iron hand to curb free speech, which I think is an overreaction to the expression of opinion (or an) expression of views by people", opined former Supreme Court Judge, Justice Madan Lokur today during a virtual discussion on Freedom of Speech and the Judiciary.
The discussion was hosted by Campaign for Judicial Accountability & Judicial Reforms (CJAR) and Swaraj Abhiyan this morning, alongside a live presser by Advocate Prashant Bhushan prior to depositing the Re 1 fine penalty imposed on him for criminal contempt by the Supreme Court last month over tweets criticising the judiciary.
Sharing his views on the freedom of speech at the discussion, Justice Lokur elaborated,
Lokur added that another way in which free speech is being curbed is by misjudging opinions as fake news. To illustrate, he referred to a case in Punjab where a man is reported to have been. sent to jail because he commented that there were no ventilators in the district hospital. The district administration is reported to have denied the same and charged the man with sedition.
In another case, a journalist is stated to have been slapped with sedition charges for expressing that the COVID-19 situation does not seem to be in control in the state.
The misreading of statements is yet another avenue through which free speech is being curtailed, Justice Lokur said, commenting,
"I think Prashant Bhushan's case is one example. It was not his intention, I believe, to denigrate the Supreme Court or to scandalise the Supreme Court. It was his intention to point out some defects which needed to be looked into. But what he said, his speech, was misread and contempt proceedings were initiated."
While he did not refer to the case by name, Justice Lokur referred to the Allahabad High Court's recent release of Dr Kafeel Khan, who had been jailed under preventive detention laws and sedition charges.
Lokur took critical note over the State's decision to view a speech on unity and integrity as an attempt to "break up the country."
"A speech which talks about unity and integrity is misread by the State which says he is trying to break the country - so they put him under preventive detention!
How do you explain that? When somebdy says something good, you say 'no no no, you may be saying something good, but I think it is something bad.'... This person had to spend 6 or 7 months in preventive detention."
He further commented,
"There are youngsters, students who are talking about doing good for the country, but you misread their statements and you put them in jail saying UAPA, Sedition...You have people who talk about violence, who talk about breaking up things - nothing happens to them. How does the State make this kind of distinction?"
Justice Lokur further remarked,
"The unfortunate thing is that people who are put under preventive detention are not challenging it. It is very difficult to sustain an order of preventive detention, but is is not being challenged, perhaps because of fear, I don't know. But this is given a handle to the state to employ preventive detention", Lokur J added.
Before concluding his address, Lokur J also voiced his concern over the large number of cases pending before courts. Following a perusal of e-court statistics, he observed that there are 3.4 crore cases pending before district courts.
"How will these people get justice, I don't know. This number is very large", he remarked.
Justice Lokur added that introspection by the judiciary on how they will tackle this is absolutely necessary and that a plan of action should be made for the same. He further opined that it is imperative for the judiciary to be transparent in its functioning.