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Staying The Sedition Law

Recent Development:
The recent order in S.G Vombatke vs Union of India has been a monumental moment for the right to dissent, protected under the ambit of Article 19(1)(a), i.e Freedom to Speech and Expression under the constitution of India.

SC asked all the states to put abeyance on all pending cases under 124A of IPC and hence suspended the colonial-era law until the centre reconsiders and re-examines the provisions.

The petitioners, represented by Senior lawyer Kapil Sibal told the Supreme Court that 1300 people were in jail due to the law. The petition stated "The rigours of section 124A are not in tune with the current social milieu, and were intended for a time when this country was under colonial regime"

The three-judge bench headed by CJI N V Ramana stated that "it will be appropriate not to use this provision of law till further re-examination is over"

What is the sedition law?
124A of IPC reads as follows:
[124A. 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, 102 [***] the Government established by law in 103 [India], [***] shall be punished with 104 [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.

Explanation 1. The expression "disaffection" includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity

Explanation 2. 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 offence under this section. Explanation 3.-Comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.]

The sedition law or section 124(A) was not a part of the Indian Penal Code drafted by Thomas Macaulay. It was included in 1890, through Special Act XVIII.

The punishment was initially to deport the offenders beyond the sea for the remainder of his/her natural life which was later changed to life imprisonment in 1955.

Sedition law was used to curb dissent during the pre-independence age. Mahatma Gandhi. Annie Besant, Shaukat and Mohammad Ali, Maulana Azad and Matama Gandhi were some leaders who were booked under sedition law.

Queen Empress vs Bal Gangadhar Tilak, took place in 1898 and can be labelled as a defining movement in the history of sedition law that took place while Bal Gangadhar Tilak was charged with sedition for an editorial he wrote for a newspaper.

The constituent assembly debated about the inclusion of the term "sedition" as an exception to the right of free speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) however, the suggestion was dissented and the term is not included in the document.

Legal challenges to 124A
Sedition law has been under fire for a long time. In 1950, Justice Patanjali Shastri in Romesh Thapar Vs State of Madras cited that deliberate omission of the term sedition to enable the liberal reading of the constitution. He held that mere criticism of the government exciting disaffection or bad feelings towards it is not to be regarded as a justifying ground for restricting the freedom of expression and press unless it is such as to undermine the security or tend to overthrow the state

Various High Courts agreed to this position and opined that sedition was an unconstitutional provision as it was an instrument of the colonial rulers to curb dissent and quell discontentment.

Kedar Nath Singh v/s State Of Bihar

The Kedar Nath ruling was a five-bench on sedition by the Supreme Court. In the said judgement, the validity of the sedition law was upheld however, the apex court attempted to limit its scope for misuse. It was held that to qualify for sedition, the criticism of the government should be accompanied by a call for violence or incitement of violence.

The court's judgement read the term "public disorder", which was not cited in the law but is an essential requirement to consider a public speech to be seditious in nature. Hence, by underlining the term "public disorder", the court set an important precedent, where mere sloganeering unaccompanied by a threat to disturb the public order could not qualify as sedition.

Few other important judgements on sedition would include Balwant Singh vs State of Punjab, Dr.Binayak Sen vs State of Chattisgarh and Arun Jaitley vs State of Uttar Pradesh.

In spite of the above judgements ruling in the same line as that of the Supreme Court, there has been a rampant misuse of the sedition law in the country. The Law Commission and the Supreme Court put the onus on the police to distinguish between legitimate speech and hate speech while charging a citizen with sedition. Infact last year the sedition law sparked debate again when the apex court ordered quashing the FIRs against journalist Vinod Dua for critciising the covid management policies of Narendra Modi.

Supreme Court agreed to hear fresh challenges to the Kedar Nath Singh ruling on petitions filed by Journalist, Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha, Kanhiya Lal Shukla and Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra.

K.K. Venugopalan, the Attorney General of India, initially defended the law on behalf of the government, arguing "isolated incidents of misuse ' which does not necessitate the removal of the law, but now it is mulling a fresh review into the said law.

The petitioner has argued that the restrictive Kedar Nath Singh judgement can be replaced by other laws enacted.

Court's intervention is essential for overruling, however by reviewing, the central government could bring back the law by diluting its provision.

The need to repeal the sedition law has been felt more strongly than ever in the last decade. In 2012 a cartoonist was booked under the sedition law for portraying the members of the ruling party as corrupt in Mumbai. Since then there has been no looking back for people aspiring to misuse the sedition law in their favour.

Most of the cases under the sedition law do not meet conviction and hence become an ideal tool for harassment. According to the Nation Crime Records Bureau, 399 sedition cases have pan India since 2014. The year 2019, which registered 93 cases, has witnessed a low conviction rate of 3.3%

The abuse of sedition law should seek to distinguish between sedition and th mere act of criticising the government. It is important to remember that for a high-functioning democracy, criticism should not only come from the opposition but also from the citizens.

In addition, to the above arguments, it should be noted that section 124A was added during the colonial era to suppress dissent from the mass population and oppress the poor working class.

Another feature of sedition law that fetches criticism from all quarters is that the use of the term "disaffection" is vague which makes it prone to misuse by the government.

However, those in favour of the sedition law counter-argue that the law saves the country from anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements. The stability of the country will be affected if the ruling government is overthrown by unlawful means.

Over the years, the law commission has changed its opinion about the sedition law. In the 39th report in 1968, it states that the sedition law should be kept, while in the 42nd report, the commission was in favour of considering the scope of the sedition law. However, in 2018, the law commission was considering repealing or "re-think" the scope of sedition law.

In Andra Pradesh too, all the cases under section 124 A were directed to be immediately halted. Andra Pradesh had only three cases of sedition registered from 2014 to 2020 and one case by Andhra Pradesh Crime Investigation Department ('CID') against Narsapuram Member of Parliament (MP) Kanumuri Raghurama Krishnam Raju for indulging in hate speech. After the order, the cases against those charged with hate speech have been halted and those arrested under 124A have been released.

Even Lakshadweep-based filmmaker Alisha Sultana has been granted relief following the Apex court's order on section 124 A.


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