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Legislation Redux: The Art of Rebirth in a Different Guise

On August 10th, Home Minister Amit Shah unveiled a trio of groundbreaking bills within the hallowed halls of the Indian Parliament. These legislative endeavours harboured a profound mission - to revolutionize India's criminal justice system, effectively dismantling the vestiges of colonial-era legal paradigms. In this sweeping transformation, they ushered in novel criminal offenses into the legal drapes, yet clung steadfastly to the age-old principles of retribution.

In an intriguing twist, the sedition law, long decried for its oppressive nature, was ostensibly removed from the statute books, with a significant statement by Home Minister, "Everyone has a Right to speak, we are completely repealing sedition". However, its spectre lingered ominously, reborn under a different guise and shrouded in ambiguous language, thereby rendering it more potent and severe than its predecessor enshrined in Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code. This article will strictly restrict its ambit to the ambiguity and vagueness of sedition and sedition 2.0. Section 150 of BSN is just a same wine in new bottle as the use of ambiguous terminologies still exist, which is also existent in section 124A of IP.

Ambiguous And Vague Character Of Section 124 A Of IPC

The core tenet of a just and democratic society is its capacity to uphold the fundamental rights and freedoms of its citizens. An indispensable aspect of safeguarding these rights lies in the lucidity and meticulousness of its legal statutes. Obscure and nebulous laws not only contravene the principles of justice but also pose a significant peril to individual liberties.

Within the Indian Penal Code, Section 124A proscribes word "disaffection" towards the government, a term notorious for its lack of precision and susceptibility to multifarious interpretations. The presence of such vagueness within legal parlance constitutes a grave concern, as it endows investigating officers with the latitude to adjudge the culpability or innocence of an accused person subjectively.

Ambiguous statutes contravene the principle of legal certainty, rendering it arduous for citizens to apprehend the confines of their legal obligations. The intrinsic equivocation embedded in such provisions alone serves as a justifiable basis for the nullification of a statute.

Vagueness in legal terminology escalates inimicality when juxtaposed with the potential for misuse. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, with its ambiguous concept of "disaffection," bestows considerable discretion upon authorities when prosecuting individuals.

The determination of whether an individual's utterances possess the propensity to foment disorder becomes a question of subjective adjudication by the executive branch, effectively casting them in the role of the tribunal on the streets. This vulnerability engenders a gateway to potential abuses of power and wrongful prosecutions.

In the case of Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India (2015), the Indian Supreme Court lucidly apprehended the perils associated with vague and open-ended legal stipulations. The case centered on the validity of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, a statute the Court eventually expunged.

It is paramount to underscore that the Court's decision did not rest solely upon the nebulous nature of the legislation but also upon the perilous prospect of its misuse. In its verdict, the Supreme Court invoked the adage that "vague laws may trap the innocent by not providing fair warning," a caveat as germane today as when it was initially articulated.

The Court underscored the imperative of public discourse as a political duty and underscored that an opaque statute that criminalizes speech could suffocate the exercise of free expression, impeding public debate and democratic engagement.

However, similar sort of ambiguity and vagueness appears in a newly proposed bill of BNS in which it is being claimed that sedition as it signifies the colonial legacy of britisher`s. But at the same time a new version of sedition has been proposed under section 150 of BNS which is considerably more stringent and overtly vague and ambiguous.

How Section 150 Of Bns Resembles With Section 124a Of IPC

It states as , "Whoever, purposely or knowingly, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or by electronic communication or by use of financial mean, or otherwise, excites or attempts to excite, secession or armed rebellion or subversive activities, or encourages feelings of separatist activities or endangers sovereignty or unity and integrity of India; or indulges in or commits any such act shall be punished with imprisonment for life or with imprisonment which may extend to seven years and shall also be liable to fine.

This section aims to criminalize actions aimed at inciting secession, armed rebellion, subversive activities, or separatist sentiments that endanger the sovereignty, unity, and integrity of India. While the intention behind such a provision may be to safeguard national security and maintain public order, it exhibits several elements of vagueness and subjectivity that that are existent on section 124A of the IPC, 1860 and it can potentially lead to misuse and curtailment of individual freedoms, as has been done earlier under the former sedition law.

The section employs terms such as "excites or attempts to excite," "subversive activities," "encourages feelings of separatist activities," and "endangers sovereignty or unity and integrity of India." These terms are vague and open to interpretation. What constitutes an attempt? Or what excite or encourage separatist feelings? May vary from person to person, and different authorities may have differing interpretations.

The determination of whether someone has violated this section hinges on subjective assessments by law enforcement.. The lack of clear criteria for what constitutes an offense may lead to arbitrary or biased interpretations, potentially allowing for selective prosecution. The provision encompasses a wide range of activities, including spoken or written words, signs, visible representations, electronic communication, and the use of financial means. This broad scope could potentially encompass legitimate forms of expression, political dissent, or peaceful advocacy, thereby stifling free speech and expression.

The section does not provide a clear definition of crucial terms like "secession," "armed rebellion," or "subversive activities." The absence of precise definitions leaves room for differing interpretations and potential misuse. With vague and open-ended language, this provision could be susceptible to misuse by authorities to suppress dissenting voices, target political opponents, or stifle minority rights. Such misuse can undermine the principles of justice, fairness, and the rule of law. Now the question arises, Does BNS Via section 150 upholds the legacy of colonial penal provision i.e. section 124A of IPC, by making it more stringent and vague?

In a democratic polity, the law must be unambiguous, precise, and devoid of ambiguity to shield individual liberties and ensure justice. Obscure legal provisions, such as Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code and newly proposed section 150 of BNS, can be potentially misinterpreted and misused for prejudices.

The Supreme Court's pronouncement in Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India aptly underscores the hazards of enigmatic laws and the imperativeness of their expungement to shield citizens from unjust entanglements within the legal labyrinth. An ambiguous and vague statute begets profound repercussions for individuals.

It unbolts the gateway to arbitrary detentions, incarcerations, and subjects individuals to protracted pre-trial, trial, and appellate processes that exact an emotional and financial toll. Such legal ambiguity corrodes the bedrock principles of justice, equity, and the rule of law.

  1. BNS section 150: same coffee, little stronger but in a 'different mug', available at:
  2. Sedition by another name equally shady, available at:
  3. Sedition provision retained with new nomenclature under proposed penal law, available at:

Written By: Mubashir Azmat Shah, Third Year Law Student At Aligarh Muslim University

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