Sedition law in India: Arguments for and against- Explained, pointwise

Introduction

Recently the Supreme Court invalidated a sedition case filed against a journalist. In judgement, the court held that “Every journalist is entitled to protection under the Kedar Nath Singh judgement”. This is not an exceptional case, where the Supreme court has criticized the application of Section 124A(Sedition). In the past also, the judiciary has criticized the implementation of sedition law in India.

Earlier this week also, the Supreme Court held that the interpretation of Section 124A needs a relook, particularly in the context of media freedom. In 2018, the Law Commission of India also published a consultation paper recommending that it is time to re-think or repeal Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. In this article let’s understand the arguments for and against repealing Sedition.

About the recent case of Sedition
  • In 2020, a local political leader from Himachal Pradesh filed a sedition case against a journalist over his comment on a YouTube show criticizing the central government.
  • The police also filed an FIR and charged him under sections 124A (sedition), 268 (public nuisance), 501 (printing matter known to be defamatory) and 505 (statements conducive to public mischief).
  • The Supreme court recently held that the charges are invalid. The court cited the Kedar Nath Singh judgement, 1962. 
    • In 1962, the Supreme court held that the sedition charges could not be invoked against a citizen for criticizing government actions. As right to criticize is in conformity with the freedom of speech and expression.
What is sedition?
  • In India, Sedition falls under section 124A of the IPC (Indian Penal Code).
  • It is defined as any action that brings or attempts to bring contempt or hatred towards the government of India.
  • Sedition cases are punishable with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
  • It is classified as “cognizable(No need Court warrant to arrest the person) and a “non-bailable” and “non-compoundable” offence (In a compoundable offence, charges against the accused can withdrawn)
  • A person charged under this provision can’t apply for a government job.
  • She/he has to live without their passport. Apart from that, they must present themselves in court as and when required.
History of Sedition law in India

Sedition law was first enacted in 17th century England. Later it was inserted into IPC in 1870.

  1. The section was introduced initially to deal with increasing Wahabi activities between 1863 and 1870. These activities posed a challenge to the colonial government.
  2. Some of the most famous sedition trials of the late 19th and early 20th century involved Indian nationalist leaders.
    • The first among them was the trial of Jogendra Chandra Bose in 1891. He was the editor of the newspaper, Bangobasi. He wrote an article criticizing the Age of Consent Bill for posing a threat to the religion and for its coercive relationship with Indians.
    • It was also used to prosecute Bal Gangadhar Tilak (for his writings in Kesari) in 1897.
    • The other well-known case was the sedition trial of Mahatma Gandhi in 1922. Gandhi had called Sedition “the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”.
Judicial interventions on Sedition law in India
  1.  In 1951, the Punjab High Court had ruled Section 124A to be unconstitutional. A similar ruling was passed in 1959 by the Allahabad High Court, which also concluded that it struck at the very root of free speech.
  2. Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar,1962:
    • The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of Section 124-A (sedition) on the basis that this power was required by the state to protect itself.
    • However, it said that every citizen has a right to say or write about the government by way of criticism or comment. A citizen can criticize the government to the extent it does not incite people into violence against the government or with the intention of creating public disorder.
  3. P. Alavi vs State of Kerala,1982:
    • The Supreme Court held that sloganeering, criticizing of Parliament or Judicial setup does not amount to sedition.
  4. Balwant Singh v State of Punjab,1995:
    • The Supreme Court acquitted persons from charges of sedition for shouting slogans such as “Khalistan Zindabad”.
    • The court held that mere raising of slogans by two individuals alone cannot be said as sedition. Further, it is also not considered as an attempt aimed to excite hatred or disaffection against the government.
  5. Sanskar Marathe vs The State Of Maharashtra, 2015
    • In this case, the Bombay High Court issued certain guidelines Police officials must follow before filing a sedition case against anyone.
    • These guidelines include an objective evaluation of the seditious material. By evaluation, the police must form an opinion on whether the words and actions caused disaffection and disloyalty to the government.
  6. Rajat Sharma v. The Union of India Case, 2021
    • In this case, the court ruling said that disagreeing with the views and policies of the government will not attract the offence of sedition. So the provision of Sedition cannot be invoked to quiet the disquiet (criminalizing the critics).
Arguments supporting the sedition law in India
  1. Section 124A of the IPC has its utility in combating anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements
  2. It protects the elected government from attempts to overthrow the government with violence and illegal means. The continued existence of the government established by law is an essential condition of the stability of the State
  3. If contempt of court invites penal action, contempt of government should also attract punishment
  4. Many districts in different states face a Maoist insurgency and rebel groups virtually run a parallel administration. These groups openly advocate the overthrow of the state government by revolution

So, the abolition of Section 124A would be ill-advised merely because it has been wrongly invoked in some highly publicized cases.

Arguments against the sedition law in India
  1. Poor implementation of court guidelines: Every time the sedition case was getting quashed, the Judiciary guided the law enforcement agencies regarding its application. But the law enforcement agencies are not following the guidelines in letter and spirit.
  2. Increasing misuse of sedition: The recent reports show that the number of cases of sedition under Section 124A increased by 160%. Whereas the rate of conviction dropped to 3.3% in 2019 from 33.3% in 2016.
  3. Abolition of Sedition in the UK: The U.K. abolished the offence of sedition in 2010. Whereas, India is still retaining the law given by the British Empire.
    • Similarly, in Australia also, following the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) the term sedition was removed and replaced with references to ‘urging violence offenses’.
  4. Recommendation of Law commission: In 2018, the Law Commission of India questioned how far it is justified to retain Section 124A. It even suggested to re-think or repeal the Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code.
  5. Against India’s international Commitment: In 1979, India ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
    • It sets forth internationally recognized standards for the protection of freedom of expression. However, misuse of sedition and arbitrary slapping of charges are inconsistent with India’s international commitments.
  6. IPC and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act have provisions that penalize “disrupting the public order” or “overthrowing the government with violence and illegal means”. These are sufficient for protecting national integrity. There is no specific need for Section 124A.
Suggestions
  1. The government has to educate the Law enforcement authorities to prevent the problem of misuse. The enforcement authorities might be trained regarding the application and non-application cases of sedition and other criminal defamation suits.
  2. Parent-Child approach: The state must act like it is the parent of all its citizens. Despite the insult (sedition) by children (citizen), parents don’t discard their children quite easily.
  3. State should also accept the fact that public figures must face criticism.
  4. The Protection of Speech and Reputation Bill, 2016 in modified form can be enacted by the government. The Private member bill has certain important provisions such as
    • Setting the maximum claim limits and barring governments, local bodies and other institutions (statutory functions) from filing suits for defamation and sedition.
    • Providing punishments such as apologies, corrections and retractions, for a lesser form of crimes.

Conclusion

India is the largest democracy in the world and the right to free speech and expression is an essential ingredient of democracy. Dissent is the lifeblood of democracy. If the criticisms reach at the right time to the government, then it can save a lot of resources, government machinery, etc. On the other hand, to secure national integrity, divisive forces have to be kept in check.  Preventing wrongful enforcement and misuse alone can remove the majority of the criticism against the Sedition. So the government must prioritize that.

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