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Is Sedition Law Threat To Freedom Of Speech

The most argumentative topic in India in today's time is the Sedition Law and its enforcement in the Constitutional law Jurisprudence. Different views have been presented regarding sedition ranging from complete abolition of the provision to commending the sedition clause for more vigorous implementation. It has also been advised that the provision must be used with defined limits in order to strike a balance between national security and fundamental rights.

A fresh challenge has been filed in the Supreme Court regarding the offence of sedition. The Supreme Court has directed both the Centre and the states to keep abeyance on all the proceedings and trials regarding Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code i.e. the offence of sedition till the central government reconsiders the law. The provision was initially defended by the Supreme Court but later it was told that the provision is being reviewed.

What Is Sedition Law?

The word 'Sedition' is defined under section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 which states that "whoever, 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".

The Sedition charge was imposed by the British colonial government in order to suppress the speeches and writings of many political as well as Indian freedom fighters. The Sedition charges were imposed on Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and many more Indian freedom fighters in order to suppress their speeches and writings and imprison them under the British colonial rule.

What Is The Punishment For Sedition Laws In India

The person who is charged under the Sedition law shall be punished with imprisonment for life or with the imprisonment which may extend to 3 years or fine or both. The offence of Sedition is a Non-Bailable offence and the person charged by the same cannot apply for any government job. Their passports are also seized by the government and the person has to present him/ she as and when required.

History And Evolution Of Sedition Law In India

The sedition law was drafted by the British Historian Politician Thomas Babington Macaulay in the year 1837. The law drafted by Macaulay was absent from the original draft in the year 1860 and then was further introduced in the year 1870 which was piloted by James Stephen.

The first case that was registered under the offence offence of Sedition was in the year 1891, Queen-Empress v. Jogendra Chunder Bose & Ors (1892) ILR 19 Cal 35 in this case, the offence of sedition was charged on the editor of the Bengali magazine regarding the British Government's policy on age of the Consent Act, 1891.

The publishers challenged the offence and said that only penalized writing of seditious content must be considered under sedition and not the publication. It was further held by the Calcutta High Court that the publishers cannot be held liable as no seditious content has been written by them and the magazine has been circulated for the target audience. Furthermore, the court has also distinguished between the words 'Disapprobation' (strongly condemning or criticism) 'Disaffection' (which means absence or alienation of affection).

It also concluded that people's rights should not be taken away since only the word disaffection is penalized. A well settled example of early use of sedition law was held in the year 1897. Bal Gangadhar Tilak (also called as Lokmanya) was an Indian freedom fighter. He was charged with sedition for showing and exciting disaffection against the Government in his article Kesari that he got published.

The landmark case that was held in this matter was Queen-Empress v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Keshav Mahadev Bal, (1897) ILR 22 Bom 112, in the case Bal Gangadhar Tilak was charged for provocating alleged speeches which resulted in killings of two British officials. The single bench judge of the Bombay High Court agreed with the definition of the word 'Disaffection' as previously discussed in the case of Joginder Chander Bose and said that 'any bad words or feelings' will be considered as a criminal offence irrespective of what its extent is. Further the court held that the intention of the person is what matters and must be considered on primary basis and should be understandable by the audience on the basis of their context i.e. seditious speech.

After two decades, Bal Gangadhar Tilak was again tried in another sedition case of Emperor v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1917) for the article. He wrote emphasizing Swaraj for Indians. In the court he unambiguously admitted his loyalty towards the British government but highly criticized the civil services and further argued that both the British Crown and the civil services are two separate entities. However, the contentions made by Tilak were rejected by the division bench of the Bombay High Court stating that the power or authority is derived from the state itself and no such ground exists. It was further held criticizing the civil services of the state directly amounts to the offence of sedition.

"The liberal stance was taken by the court in this case, rejecting Tilak's arguments on the word 'Disaffection 'that was given by single bench judge in the same court in Queen-Empress v. Tilak and Bal, which earlier came out as a broad definition of disaffection as anything but contrary to affection"

This judgment created an optimistic approach on freedom of speech and the impact of the alleged Seditious speech will be will be considered after knowing the intentions of the accused.

However, after the Independence in the year 1947, a lot of criticism was faced on this provision as it was imposed in British Colonial Rule and also acted as a barrier for freedom of speech. In the year 1951, the then Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru remarked by introducing the first amendment act in the year 1951 in the parliament, "Now as far as I am concerned this particular section (124A IPC) is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it has no reason for both practical and historical aspects, in any laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of this law is better. The matter can be delt in more limited ways like every other country does and should have no place, because all of us are having enough experience in variety of ways and apart from the logic of the situation our urges are against it".

Revalidation Of Sedition Law

The law of sedition was declared unconstitutional by the Punjab and Haryana High court in 1950s. Finally in the year 1962, a five bench decision was given in the case of Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar 1962 AIR 955, the Supreme Court in this case went on to clarify the correct position of the offence of Sedition by upholding the Constitutional validity of the Section 124A. Hatred and insulted speeches were made against the then ruling Indian National Congress by the accused Kedar nath singh who was the member of the communist party of Bihar.

When the court examined the matter the court upheld the validity of section 124A and also restricted the use of this law demarcating the difference when the act of sedition can be used and when it cannot be used by the government. Section 124A was also read down by the Supreme Court in order to allow the criticism of the government. However, the court also draws an attention between towards "unreasonable distinction" between the governments itself.

The court also did not consider the report of the Press Laws Committee 1948, to bring the law in India with British counterpart and also did not consider the report of the press commission 1954 to repeal the law. It was also further clarified by the Supreme Court that the law of Sedition can only be invoked when the seditious speech has been made by the person and such speech would result in public disorder. Since the accused has made speeches only against the party and the state, therefore it did not amount to Sedition.

One more important decision was given in the case of Balwant Singh & Anr v. State of Punjab 1995(1) SCR 411, in the Indira Gandhi Assassination case the accused was charged with the offence of sedition for making hatred slogans in favor of the Sikh majority. The two judge bench of the Supreme Court held that the slogans raised by the accused does not amount to sedition as no disturbance and violence observed in the in the public order. Therefore, Balwant singh was released.

The recent case held in the year 2021 is Vinod Dua v. Union of India 2021 SCC Online SC 414 in this case Mr. Vinod Dua , in his YouTube programme the Vinos dua show allegedly made hatred speeches against the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Government. He further said that death threats and terror attacks were used by the PM to obtain votes. It was also said that there is no adequate facilities provided by the government and also no explanation was given for the same by the government.

Of the personal protection kits (PPE). According to the F.I.R., Mr. Vinod Dua has generated terror amongst the people and it would stir up the public dissatisfaction forcing people to come out of the lockdown and stockpile supplies which are not needed. A bench of Justice UU Lalit and Vineet Sarang of the Supreme Court of India quashed the Sedition case against Mr. Vinod Dua stating on the issue of protection of freedom of speech and expression of media personnel saying "every journalist is entitled to protection under the Kedar Nath Singh judgement".

What Is Being Done About The Misuse Of This Law?

Many Human Rights Activists and Civil rights organisations have demanded to repeal Section 124A stating that this repressive colonial provision should not have any place in this democratic country. According to them it jeopardizes citizens Right to speech and it is brought in practice when there is no danger to the public order.

On august 30, 2018 the law commission of India in its consultation paper has published that the offence of sedition must be retained for protecting the national integrity of the country and should not restraint the freedom of speech i.e. Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution.

Since the commencement of the law of sedition it has only silent the voices of the people in India. The rise in the Sedition cases over the past few years is a clear example that authorities are using this exceptional law indiscriminately. It is clearly visible that Section 124A is misused and is distinguished by subjective application, vagueness and a tool for harassment of citizens for no reasons.

Hence, there is an urgent need to look upon the usage of the Sedition law in the country and to ensure that the law is used within limits in order to maintain the balance between the national security and fundamental rights.

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