Section 124-A of The Indian Penal Code has been judiciously used as a tool to
silence dissent, both before and after independence. Despite various
interferences by the courts which attempted to restrict the scope of sedition
and extend the purview of freedom of Speech and Expression, the law continues to
be misused. The recent challenge on the constitutionality of Sedition law has
rekindled the debate around the need for sedition and freedom of speech and
expression. While there is enough material available for and against Section
124-A of the IPC, the historic second sedition trial of Bal Gangadhar Tilak
The Second Sedition Trial of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, 1908
Facts of the case
Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak was arrested on June 1908 under section 124-A of
the Indian Penal Code (IPC) Sedition. ”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 and Section 153-A of the IPC for his articles which appeared in Kesari (A Marathi newspaper founded by
The Country's Misfortune (Kesari, 19th May 1908)
This article was written in response to the killing of two English women by a
bomb hurled by Khudiram Bose, whereby Tilak drew an analogy between India and
erstwhile Russia. He wrote that the oppression of the white class resulted in
the formation of a secret society of the young generation which aims to
assassinate the entire white (British) ruling class. This Tilak defined as
something very unfortunate.
He further wrote that the exasperation, fire, and vehemence of the subjects have
to be kept within a prescribed boundary, the ruling class does not take into
account the views of the subjects and as the demand for Swarajya was rising,
along with the rise in western education it was as he argued impossible for the
ruling class to ignore the views of the subjects. Tilak further wrote that the
ruling class blames such unfortunate incidents on the leaders of the subject and
has tried to suppress writing, speeches, etc. dissenting the government and the
kind of disregard the government shows towards this suggestion is defined as The
These Remedies Are Not Lasting (Kesari, 9th June 1908)
This article was written in response to the repressive measures used by the
government to suppress free speech and the way bomb violence was rising in
erstwhile India against the repressive policies which according to Tilak was not
an outcome of hate but was an outcome of oppression as was evident in the
erstwhile Russia and Portugal.
Tilak further expressed his displeasure over the repressive laws that were made
by the Britishers to discourage bomb violence, by making it impossible to
manufacture bombs and to take every step discouraging people from throwing and
manufacturing bombs. On this Tilak wrote that such repressive laws were not even
brought by Mughals and nowhere in the world, autocracies have resorted to these
methods of repression.
He further wrote that these measures would not create any impact, as at that
time, with the advent of western education, the short and not very complex
formula of making bombs and the trade of certain chemicals made these remedies
not lasting. He in conclusion suggested that the only way to stop bomb violence
was to grant people what they want that is Swarajya.
It is noteworthy that Tilak was convicted for sedition in the year 1897 whereby
he was sentenced to 18-month imprisonment.
Initially, in the 1908 case M. Jinnah appeared for Tilak and applied for bail,
the application was rejected by Judge Davar (Interestingly, Davar appeared for
Tilak in 1897 and secured him bail). Tilak fought the 1908 case on his own.
Arguments advanced by the prosecution
During the trial, the prosecution contended that the two articles authored by
Tilak were full of seditious remarks which alleged that the government carried
its administration in an unscrupulous and iniquitous way; it had a strong desire
to benefit its own country; that it sacrificed the interests of the natives to
those of Englishmen; that it was autocratical; that it was of an oppressive and
tyrannical character and had become unbearable to the people of India these
all as per the prosecution clearly comes under the meaning of the term
The prosecution also contended that Tilak through the second article in a way
suggested that other countries have got advantages by throwing bombs and the
same result can be achieved in India by same the means. The prosecution further
contended that the second article intended to stir up racial feelings by saying
that the white class was acting in a manner hostile to the interests of the
native. A postcard that belonged to Tilak was also shown as a piece of
evidence that contained the names of books on explosives.
Arguments advanced by Tilak
Tilak in his defence argued that for sedition three points were to be
- The question of publication
- The question of insinuations and innuendoes
- The question of intention.
For the first point, he took full responsibility that articles were indeed
written and published by him but on the latter two points he contended that it
would be unsafe for the jury to convict him just based on a mere opinion that is
formed in the minds of the jurors by the articles which were not the original
ones but were the English translated versions of the original articles which
were written in Marathi, on this he drew a very precise analogy.
jurors) are asked to sit in judgement upon an article written in French in
England and to say what effect the French article which was translated in
English would produce upon French population in France.
He further argued that the jury comprising a majority of Englishmen had a meagre
understanding of the audience of Kesari, which were the Marathi speaking
community hence the impact of articles on the minds of the jurors could never be
equated with the impact those articles had on the minds of the original
Further, he divided the offence of sedition into two parts (1) brings or (2)
attempts to bring in hatred, (1) excites or (2) attempts to excite and argued
that the Marathi speaking class (the audience of Kesari) was already aware of
the views he advocated a each and every sentence of his article could have been
found in the Congress literature. Since no evidence was produced to show (1) he
argued that his charge to be reduced to a mere attempt which he referring to
certain precedents argued being non-punishable.
He further clarified that those articles were written in response to the
articles written by the Anglo-Indian community, the motive the two articles was
to suggest reforms to the government during the time of unrest which should fall
under the ambit of fair criticism and the articles were written in the spur on
I am a journalist I have two hundred papers lying on my table, I have to digest
and weigh them and read and write on the spur of the movement¯. He further
referring to freedom of press urged the jury to consider The law may be rigid
law may be harsh stand between me and the law and protect me because I represent
the liberty of press.¯
The trial of Tilak was a mere formality. Despite all these interesting and
logical arguments given by Tilak, the jury consisting of 7 Anglo-Indian and 2
Indians convicted Tilak with a 7:2 majority and sentenced him to 6 years
transportation and a fine of ā‚¹1000. Not only this Judge Davar while delivering
the judgment described Tilak as a man of diseased and perverted mind¯ his
journalism is a curse to India¯.
After being held guilty Tilak very remarkably in his immortal words said:
All that I wish to say is that in spite of the verdict of the Jury I still
maintain that I am innocent. There are higher powers that rule the destinies of
men and nations and I think it may be the will of Providence that the cause I
represent may be benefitted more by my suffering than by my pen and tongue.¯
After the death of Tilak, a nation named India came into existence with a
constitution that guaranteed to its citizens the freedom of speech and
expression which according to Tilak gives birth to a nation and nourishes it.
The freedom of speech and expression in India is indeed not absolute, certain
reasonable restrictions can be put in place and one such restriction is sedition
which Jawaharlal Nehru defined as highly objectionable and obnoxious and it
should have no place both for practical and historical reasons, if you like, in
any body of laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better.
The fear of Jawaharlal Nehru was not unfounded. In recent years according to a
report by NCRB, there has been a rise of 165% in cases of sedition. The
conviction of various journalists like Kappan Siddique, initiation of sedition
proceedings against a parent and a principal of a school in Bidar, Karnataka,
detention of Sharjeel Imam etc. under the sedition law sets a chilling effect
upon the freedom of speech and expression and the Indian democracy.
Courts in these matters have failed to follow the norm Bail is rule, jail is an
exception¯ also the prerequisite incitement of violence¯ which was set by Hon'ble Supreme Court in the case of Kedar Nath V State of Bihar, 1962 was not
followed. Now that the law of sedition is on review the government must
understand that dissent is not something that is not healthy for democracy but
is something on which a healthy democracy thrives. In the remarkable words of
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they
do not want to hear.