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The Supreme Court will take up for final hearing the petitions challenging the constitutional validity of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code dealing with the offence of sedition. The bench headed by the Chief Justice has asked the Union Government to file its reply by the end of the week and said the petitioners can provide their counter to the Centre’s affidavit after its submission. It is expected that the ambiguity over the validity of Sedition Law (Section 124A) will get settled after the Supreme Court’s Judgment.
What is Sedition?
Sedition was incorporated into the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 1870. 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 categorizes four sources of seditious acts: (a) Spoken words; (b) Written words;(c) Signs; (d) Visible representations.
It is classified as ‘cognisable‘ (No need of Court warrant to arrest the person) and a ‘non-bailable‘ and ‘non-compoundable‘ offence.
What has been the history of Sedition Law in India?
Sedition laws were first enacted in 17th century England. Later it was inserted into IPC in 1870. The section was introduced initially to deal with increasing Wahabi activities between 1863 and 1870. These activities posed a challenge to the colonial government.
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’.
What are the key judgements under the Sedition Law after Independence?
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.
Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar, 1962: The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of Section 124A (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 violence against the government or with the intention of creating public disorder.
P. Alavi vs State of Kerala, 1982: The Supreme Court held that sloganeering, criticising Parliament or Judicial setup does not amount to sedition.
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.
What are the arguments in favour of the Sedition Law?
First, Freedom of speech is protected through Article 19 (1) but it is not absolute. Sometimes speech is used as a tool to destabilise country’s polity and to promote enmity in the society.
Second, 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.
Third, Maoist insurgents and rebel groups openly advocate the overthrow of the government by revolution. Thus keeping section 124A is important for national security.
Fourth, if contempt of court invites penal action, contempt of government should also attract punishment.
What are the arguments against the Sedition Law?
First, the law has been misused with rising frequency by the Union and State Governments to muzzle free speech and dissent. This undermines Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. The misuse is fuelled by vague definitions of ‘disaffection towards government’ and other provisions of the section.
The governments have invoked the section against activists, detractors, writers and even cartoonists seeking to silence political dissent by accusing dissenters of promoting disaffection. The recent reports show that the number of cases of sedition under Section 124A increased by 160%. On the other hand, the rate of conviction dropped to 3.3% in 2019 from 33.3% in 2016.
|Read More: Misuse of Sedition law in India|
Second, it creates dissonance between its international commitments and domestic practice. For instance, the section is at odds with the ‘Open Societies’ statement which is signed by India. It commits signatories to freedom of expression, both online and offline.
Third, there has been a growing legal constituency for scrapping this law. For instance, in February 2021, a Delhi court said the sedition law could not be invoked to quieten the disquiet under the pretence of muzzling miscreants. The Chief Justice of India has also raised questions about the need of a colonial-era law, that subjugated people, in Independent India.
|Read More: Sedition law has no place in a modern democracy|
Fourth, political leaders and security agencies have applied an increasingly expansive interpretation to the Kedarnath versus State of Bihar Judgment. This subjective interpretation has converted the section into a political weapon to silence the opposition voices.
Fifth, many experts believe that provisions of IPC and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act are sufficient for protecting national integrity. Thus there is no need for a separate provision on sedition law.
Sixth, Sedition does not take into consideration disaffection towards (a) the Constitution, (b) the Legislatures, and (c) Administration of justice, all of which would be as disastrous to the security of the State.
What lies ahead?
First, the Supreme Court directed that the matter be listed for final disposal on May 5 and underlined that there will be no adjournments. A conclusive decision can be expected on the validity of the section.
Second, the decision on sedition will open gates to review other acts like Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the National Security Act. Critics argue that these acts are being increasingly activated to silence critics of the State.
Third, if the section is not scrapped, then police personnel should be duly trained in application of the section. In this regard, arrest shouldn’t be made below the rank of a high level officer like the Superintendent of Police. Guidelines issued in the Kedarnath case should be placed in every police station. Further, Kedarnath Judgment should be inserted into Section 124A by amending IPC.
Every irresponsible exercise of the right to free speech and expression cannot be termed seditious. While it is essential to protect national integrity, it should not be misused as a tool to curb free speech. Dissent and criticism are essential ingredients of a robust public debate on policy issues as part of a vibrant democracy. Therefore, every restriction on free speech and expression must be carefully scrutinized to avoid unwarranted restrictions.