Supreme Court judge Justice Deepak Gupta said on Saturday that Indian citizens have the right to criticise the government, and such criticism cannot be construed as sedition, The Indian Express reported. He was addressing a lawyers’ workshop organised by a charitable trust in Ahmedabad.

Gupta clarified at the beginning of his speech, titled “Sedition and Freedom of Expression”, that his views were personal and not in his official capacity as a judge of the Supreme Court. “Criticism of the executive, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the armed forces cannot be termed sedition,” Gupta said. “If we stifle criticism of these institutions, we shall become a police state instead of a democracy.”

“For me, there is a very important right which is not spelt out in the Constitution… the right of freedom of opinion, the right of freedom of conscience, by themselves, include the most important right: the right to dissent,” Gupta said. He added that a society which sticks to traditional rules degenerates.

“New thinkers are born when they disagree with well-accepted norms of the society,” Justice Gupta added. “If everybody follows the well-trodden path, no new paths will be created and no new vistas of the mind will be found.”

The judge asked the audience to always question “why”. “Only then the society will develop,” he said.

Gupta said that in a secular country like India, the atheist, agnostic and believers all have a right to freedom of expression. The judge reminded the audience of the dissent expressed by judge HR Khanna in a case related to those detained during the Emergency in 1975. Khanna was the only judge in the five-judge bench who ruled against unrestricted powers of detention.

“We have the right to criticise the government in power, whichever government it may be,” the judge said. “The misuse of the sedition law is against the very principle that our freedom fighters fought for.” Gupta added that even the judiciary is not above criticism, and must introspect its own actions.

There have been a number of sedition cases slapped against individuals expressing anti-establishment views over the past few years. On Friday, former Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Shehla Rashid was charged with sedition for tweeting allegedly fake news about the Indian Army.

Student activists Kanhaiya Kumar, Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid have also been charged with sedition for their involvement in a protest in 2016 in which several students allegedly shouted “anti-national” slogans. The protest, which was against the hanging of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru, had led to outrage by Hindutva groups.

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