Chief Justice of India NV Ramana once said “The use of sedition is like giving a saw to the carpenter to cut a piece of wood and he uses it to cut the entire forest itself”.
History of Sedition Law in India
- Thomas Macaulay (Famous for his Macaulay Minute on Indian Education 1835) drafted the Penal Code in 1837.
- Sedition was placed in the Penal Code 1837 as Section 113.
- Later, it was omitted, to only be readded in 1870 back in the Penal Code by an amendment introduced by Sir James Stephen.
- British Raj in India had introduced this section on sedition under the title “Exciting Disaffection”.
IPC Amendment Act of 1898
- It made amendments to the changes brought through the Penal Code in 1870.
- Colonial past: Sedition was introduced in the penal code in 1870, a decade after the Indian Penal Code came into force.
- It was a colonial law directed against strong criticism of the British administration.
- Putting curb on Freedom fighters: Its most famous victims included Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi.
- Gandhi called it “the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”.
- The current Section 124A is said to be similar to the amendments made to it in 1898 with few omissions made in 1937, 1948, 1950, and by Part B States (Law) Act, 1951.
Sedition Law Today:
Sedition is a crime under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Section 124A IPC:
Sedition as per Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) reads as, “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 established by law in [India], shall be punished with [imprisonment for life], to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.” This law was enacted in 1860, under the British Raj, to prevent any offenses against the state.
In 1951, the Punjab High Court 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. The Government of India appealed to the Supreme Court of India, which in 1962 ruled that speeches against the government or political parties was not illegal while upholding it as applicable to separatism by persuasion or force; this pronouncement had the effect of diluting the law.
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During the 21st century, various notable authors, creative professionals, activists, and politicians have been charged with sedition under Section 124A. Cases include the then Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) general secretary Praveen Togadia (2003), Simranjit Singh Mann (2005), Binayak Sen (2007), author Arundhati Roy (2010), cartoonist Aseem Trivedi (2012), student activist Rinshad Reera (2019), climate activist Disha Ravi (2020).
It defines sedition as an offense committed when "any person 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 established by law in India".
Disaffection includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity. However, comments without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, will not constitute an offense under this section.
Between 2014-2019, 326 sedition cases were filed in India, charge sheets were filed in 141 cases which resulted in only 6 convictions.
On 15th July 2021, the Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana drew attention to the fact that the rate of conviction under sedition is very low and that this law has been misused by the executive powers. Some critics of the law further elaborate on this point by claiming that the purpose of this law is not to convict the charged, but to harass and to silence critics of the government by the means of a long-drawn-out process.
Punishment for the Sedition Offence
- It is a non-bailable offense.
- Imprisonment up to three years to a life term, to which fine may be added.
- The person found guilty of this offense is not eligible for any government job.
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The constitutional validity of sedition law
- Violative of FRs: Two high courts had found it unconstitutional after Independence, as it violated the freedom of speech and expression.
- Reasonable restrictions: The Constitution was amended to include ‘public order’ as one of the ‘reasonable restrictions’ on which free speech could be abridged by law.
- Kedar Nath Case: Thereafter, the Supreme Court, in Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar (1962) upheld its validity.
- At the same time, it limited its application to acts that involve “intention or tendency to create disorder” or incitement to violence.
- Thus, even strongly worded remarks, as long as they do not excite disloyalty and enmity, or incite violence, are not an offense under this section.
Controversies Regarding Sedition law
- Frequent use: In recent times, the resort to this section is seen as disturbingly frequent.
- Curbing dissent: Activists, cartoonists, and intellectuals have been arrested under this section, drawing criticism from liberals that it is being used to suppress dissent and silence critics.
- Misuse for propaganda: Authorities and the police who invoke this section defend the measure as a necessary step to prevent public disorder and anti-national activities.
- Irrelevance: Many of them have also been detained under the National Security Act and UAPA.
Also Read: Analysis of Defamation and related laws in India
Arguments in Support of Section 124A:
- Section 124A of the IPC has its utility in combating anti-national, secessionist, and terrorist elements.
- 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.
- If contempt of court invites penal action, contempt of government should also attract punishment.
- 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.
- Against this backdrop, the abolition of Section 124A would be ill-advised merely because it has been wrongly invoked in some highly publicized cases.
Arguments against Section 124A:
- Section 124A is a relic of colonial legacy and unsuited in a democracy. It is a constraint on the legitimate exercise of constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and expression.
- Dissent and criticism of the government are essential ingredients of robust public debate in a vibrant democracy. They should not be constructed as sedition.
- The right to question, criticize and change rulers is very fundamental to the idea of democracy.
- The British, who introduced sedition to oppress Indians, have themselves abolished the law in their country. There is no reason why India should not abolish this section.
- The terms used under Section 124A like 'disaffection' are vague and subject to different interpretations to the whims and fancies of the investigating officers.
- IPC and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 2019 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 need for Section 124A.
- The sedition law is being misused as a tool to persecute political dissent. A wide and concentrated executive discretion is inbuilt into it which permits the blatant abuse.
Also Read: FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND ATTIRE
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
- In 1979, India ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which 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.
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which establishes internationally accepted norms for the protection of freedom of expression, was ratified by India, and the misuse of section 124A goes against this. Another thing worth noting is that the IPC and UAPA 2019 have provisions that penalize “disrupting the public order” or “overthrowing the government with violence and illegal means”. These are sufficient for protecting national integrity.
Section 124A was enacted by a Colonial foreign power to put down any potential insurrection against its rule and system by labeling any “dissension” as sedition. It is retrogressive in character; hence it should be removed from the Indian Constitution, which guarantees equality, liberty, and fraternity for all citizens as a welfare State.