Sedition, once more

Sedition, once more


Sedition Charges under section 124A of Indian Penal Code invoked against Assamese scholars for remarks made against the proposed citizenship law.

Section 124A – of Indian Penal Code whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government, shall be punished by imprisonment or fine.

The expression “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity. Comments expressing disapprobation of the measures of the Government with a view to obtain their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offense under this.

Other sections of IPC:
• Section 121 – Wage war against the government of India
• Section 123 – Concealing a design to facilitate such a war

Brief about the History of Section 124A

  • Drafted by Thomas Macaulay, it was introduced in the 1870s, originally to deal with “increasing Wahabi activities between 1863 and 1870 that posed a challenge to the colonial government”.
  • In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the law was mainly used against Indian political leaders seeking independence from British rule.
  • Mahatma Gandhi, who was charged with sedition, famously said the law was “designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”.
  • In 1962, the Supreme Court imposed limits on the use of the law, making incitement to violence a necessary condition.

Why section 124A of IPC is in debate:

  • It is very often under criticism because Centre and the States have invoked the section against activists, detractors, writers and even cartoonist seeking to silence political dissent by accusing dissenters of promoting disaffection.
  • For instance, it has been invoked against several public personalities, particularly those critical of the government such as youth leader Kanhaiya Kumar and against Assamese scholar relates to speeches suggesting the demand for independence and sovereignty if the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was pushed through Parliament.
  • According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 35 cases of sedition were reported in 2016. Many of these cases did not involve violence or incitement to violence.

Why sedition act should be abolished

  • A foremost objection is a strong criticism against government policies and personalities, slogans and stinging depictions of an unresponsive or insensitive regime are all likely to be treated as ‘seditious’.
  • It is Introduced by the British to suppress the freedom struggle and its existence at present is not justified. Britain itself abolished it 10 years ago, then why India still have the section alive.
  • India ratified theInternational Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and misuse of sedition law under Section 124A and the arbitrary slapping of charges are inconsistent with the ICCPR.
  • Section 124A has been invoked against activists, detractors, writers and even cartoonists on several occasion to suppress their freedom of speech and expression (Chilling effects on Article 19 (1))
  • Another lacuna, as pointed by the Law Commission of India, is that the definition of 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.

Why continuation of Section 124A is needed.

  • The main reason behind the continuation of Sedition act after independence was to prevent the misuse of free speech (reasonable restriction) that would be aimed at inciting hatred and violence.
  • Due to Maoist insurgency and rebel groups virtually run a parallel administration, it would be perilous to abolish it. These groups openly advocate the overthrow of the state government by revolution.

Law Commission observation:

  • In an earlier report in 1968, the Law Commission had rejected the idea of repealing the section.
  • Later on, the Commission noted in a number of cases that skepticism has been expressed by the judiciary about the potential misuse of the sedition law. It was also observed that sedition is many a time used to stem any sort of political dissent in the country.
  • It has opined the burning of Constitution, or expression of disappointment with members of Parliament through a visually disparaging cartoon cannot amount to sedition.
  • The Commission opined that “Section 124A should be invoked only in cases where the intention behind any act is to disrupt public order or to overthrow the Government with violence and illegal means
  • The Law Commission of India in its 42nd report, published in 1971, the section to include disaffection towards the Constitution of India, Parliament and state legislatures and the administration of justice.

Supreme Court judgment timeline on the Validity of Section 124-A

  • In Ram Nandan Vs State (1958) – The Allahabad High Court found Section 124(A) unconstitutional.
  • In Kedar Nath Singh v. the State of Bihar (1962) – The Supreme Court held that the law is valid but cannot be used to stifle free speech and upheld the constitutionality of Section 124A and said it is only applicable where there is violence or incitement to violence in the alleged act of sedition.
  • Recently, in 2016 – The apex court held that criticism of government does not constitute sedition without incitement to violence.

Applicability of Sedition Charges

  • Sedition charges can be invoked in cases such as:
    • In the Kedar Nath Singh case, a five-judge Bench of the Supreme Court stated that allegedly seditious speech and expression may be punished only if the speech is an ‘incitement’ to ‘violence’, or ‘public disorder
    • In the Indra dasVs State of Assam case, the Supreme Court stated that only speech that amounts to “incitement to imminent lawless action” can be criminalised
    • Shouting out words leading up to incitement of violence and take up arms will attract sedition charges.
    • Exciting or attempting to excite disaffection against the Government of India;
    • Such act or attempt may be done (a) by words, either spoken or written, or (b) by signs, or (c) by visible representation; and
    • The act must be intentional.
  • Sedition charges cannot be invoked in cases such as:
    • Comments expressing disapprobation of government measures with a view to obtaining their alteration do not constitute an offense, as long as there is no incitement to violence or disaffection.
    • In the Balwant Singh vs State Punjab case, the Supreme Court set aside the convictions for ‘sedition and ‘promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race etc.
    • Mere demands that go against the legal or constitutional scheme of things.
    • Mere expression of critical views for accusing someone of planning to wage war or promote disaffection against the government.

Way Forward

  • Every irresponsible exercise of the right to free speech and expression cannot be termed seditious. For merely expressing a thought that is not in consonance with the policy of the government of the day, a person should not be charged under the section.
  • 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.
  • Section 124A should be invoked only in cases where the intention behind any act is to disrupt public order or to overthrow the Government with violence and illegal means.

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