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Is Democracy Threatened By Sedition Laws?

Sedition can be defined as a treason against the State. Though sedition has the same end impact as treason, it is commonly defined as the act of organizing or promoting resistance to the government in a manner (such as through speech or writing) that refrains of the more grave subversive charges.

Indian Penal Code, 1860 defines Sedition 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 which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added, or with fine.

Simply it means anyone who tries to incite hatred, contempt, or disdain for the government can be prosecuted under the sedition legislation. The original constitution, issued in 1950, did not acknowledge the sedition statute and provided comprehensive protection to the right to free expression under fundamental rights. However, the first amendment, enacted in 1951, included constraints that sanctioned the sedition statute. Also, In the year 2020, India completed 150 years of sedition law.

Origin And Evolution
Under the British Raj, this rule was adopted in 1860 to prohibit any offenses against the state. Following Independence, the authors of the constitution spent a significant amount of time debating different areas of colonial law. The British utilized the sedition legislation to suppress dissent and arrest freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak who protested the colonial administration's policies.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak's case was the one that genuinely developed the sedition statute. The trial judge expanded the reach of the legislation by associating disaffection with disloyalty.

Following this, in 1922, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was charged with inciting or attempting to incite discontent with the British administration.

In other words, he was accused of encouraging people to rebel against the British government without resorting to violence. As a result, Mahatma gandhi pleaded guilty to all charges and said as follows:
"Section 124 A under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen".

The issue therefore becomes: How and why does sedition still exist if it was used to suppress free expression prior to independence?
The use of the word "seditious" was highly challenged when India gained independence and the right to freedom was argued. Some, such as Sardar Vallabhai Patel and C Rajagopalchari, argued that the term "seditious" should be included. Others, such as K.M Munshi and Sonnath Lahiri, were against it. The term "sedition" was eventually removed from the Constitution, but not from the IPC, where it is still used.

This regulation was reinstated by the very contentious First Amendment, which was approved by the government of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister.

Significance And Issues
Significance:
  1. Restrictions that are Reasonable
    Reasonable constraints (under Article 19(2)) can always be put on this right (Freedom of Speech and Expression) in order to regularly secure its responsible exercise and to ensure that it is equally available to all people, according to the Indian constitution.
     
  2. Keeping Unity and Integrity
    The government can use the Sedition Act to confront anti-national, separatist, and terrorist groups.
     
  3. Maintaining State Stability
    It aids in the defense of the elected government against efforts to overturn it by violent and illegitimate methods. The presence of a legally created government is a necessary prerequisite for the state's stability.


Issues
  1. Colonial-era relic:
    Sedition was employed by colonial authorities to imprison those who opposed British policy.

    Under British control, pioneers of the liberation struggle such as Lokmanya Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhagat Singh, and others were imprisoned for "seditious" speeches, publications, and actions. As a result, the widespread application of the sedition statute dates back back to colonial times.
     
  2. The Constituent Assembly's Position:
    Sedition was not included in the Constitution by the Constituent Assembly. Members were concerned that it would restrict freedom of speech and expression. They said that the sedition statute may be used as a weapon to restrict people's constitutionally protected freedom to demonstrate.
     
  3. Disregarding Supreme Court's decision:
    In the 1962 decision of Kedar Nath Singh vs. State of Bihar, the Supreme Court narrowed the definition of sedition to "acts having the purpose or inclination to cause commotion, disruption of law and order, or encouragement to violence."

    As a result, bringing sedition accusations against academics, attorneys, social activists, and students violates the Supreme Court's mandate.
     
  4. Democratic values were suppressed
    Because of the indiscriminate use of sedition laws, India is referred to as an elected autocracy.

Current Stance On Sedition Law

A Chronology Of The Anti-Sedition Laws

  • 1890
    The Special Act XVII made sedition a crime under section 124A of the Indian Penal Code.
     
  • 1897
    Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a freedom warrior, was notably tried for sedition
     
  • January 20, 1962
    The Supreme Court affirms the law's legitimacy in the Kedar Nath case, but argues that criticism of the government cannot be regarded as sedition unless it is coupled with a demand for violence.
     
  • July 15, 2021
    A bench led by CJI NV Ramana issued a notice to the Centre in response to challenges to the provision's legality.
     
  • April 27, 2022
    The Supreme Court sent the Centre notice of the other pleas and provided the Solicitor General time to respond.
     
  • May 5, 2022
    If appeals challenging the sedition statute are forwarded to a larger bench, the SC said it would hear arguments on May 10 on legal questions.
     
  • May 7, 2022
    The Solicitor General upholded the sedition statute and a 1962 constitutional court decision supporting its legality.
     
  • May 9, 2022
    The Ministry of Home Affairs provided an affidavit in which they referred to the PM's position on the matter. It asked the Hon'ble Supreme Court not to spend time debating the constitutionality of the sedition legislation.
     
  • May 11, 2022
    The use of the 152-year-old sedition legislation has been put on hold by the Supreme Court.
​Since there has been such widespread abuse of sedition laws in recent decades, the topic of whether the law should be preserved or repealed has always been raised.

As a result, a petition was filed by Major-General SG Vombatkere (Retd) and he pleaded that:
"Sedition is a legal relic from the times of colonial rule, it has been removed from the British statute book and deserves to be struck down for our republic."

According to the petition, criminalizing expression based on unconstitutionally vague definitions such as "disaffection toward government" or "contempt against government," among other things, places unreasonable restrictions on the fundamental right to free expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) and causes a chilling effect[1] on free speech. It goes on to say that before dealing with Section 124-A, it's important to evaluate the passage of time and the evolution of the law. The petitioner claimed that the Supreme Court supported the Sedition legislation in the 1962 Kedar Nath versus State of Bihar[2] case. Doctrines like the 'chilling effect' on free expression were unheard of at the time.

The Supreme Court as a result suspended contentious sedition legislation from the colonial era. The court also stated that federal and state authorities could not bring fresh sedition accusations against anyone until the statute was reviewed. It also halted all outstanding sedition trials, appeals, and hearings, and said that anyone accused of sedition might seek bail from the courts.

Further, A three-judge panel hearing a petition against the provision, which included India's Chief Justice N.V Ramana said that, "The rigors of Section 124A are not in sync with the contemporary social context, and were meant at a time when this country was under the colonial government,". This provision of legislation should not be used until the re-examination is completed.

Conclusion
Despite the fact that our country has had a sedition statute for more than 150 years, there has always been a difference of opinion about it. Given the number of times the legislation has been exploited, the Supreme Court's recent judgment is reasonable, even if it is only temporary. Regardless of the fact that the regulation was enforced by Britishers during the colonial era, it became outdated in the UK in the 1960s and was ultimately abolished in 2009.

Some sedition laws have also been repealed in the United States.Laws that have been misused for a long period inevitably lose their authority thereby making it essential to review them or take necessary measures.

End-Notes:
  1. It is the inhibition or discouragement of legitimate exercise of natural and legal rights by the threat of legal sanction
  2. 1962 AIR 955

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