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Sedition Law: An Analysis

According to the latest NCRB's crime in India report showed that 76 sedition cases were registered across the country in the year 2021, which was 73 registered in 2020 followed by 93 cases registered in 2019. In May this year, the Supreme Court ruled to pause sedition trials until the government re-examines them.

"It will be appropriate not to use this provision of law till further re-examination is over. We hope and expect that centre and state will desist from registering any FIR under 124 A (sedition law) or initiate a proceeding under the same till re-examination is over," Ex-Chief Justice of India NV Ramana said.

What is Sedition Law, and why does it need to be re-examined?

According to Section 124A of IPC (Indian Penal Code) 'Sedition' means, 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 shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added" and is a "non-bailable offence".

The provision also contains three explanations:

  1. The expression "disaffection" includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity;
  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;
  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 legal challenges faced by this law are because of how it affects the right to speech and expression of the citizens. In Romesh Thapar v State of Madras,1950 it was held that "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 of the press, unless it is such as to undermine the security of or tend to overthrow the state."

Justice Patanjali Shastri cited the Constituent Assembly's deliberate omission of the word sedition from the Constitution for the liberal reading of the law. Further the Punjab and Haryana High Court in Tara Singh Gopi Chand v. The State (1951), and the Allahabad High Court in Ram Nandan v. State of Uttar Pradesh (1959) declared that Section 124A of the IPC was primarily a tool for colonial masters to quell discontent in the country and declared the provision unconstitutional.

However, in Kedarnath Singh v State of Bihar,1960, A five-judge Constitution Bench overruled the earlier rulings of the high courts and upheld the constitutional validity of IPC Section 124A. To prevent misuse the court took the measure by restricting its scope, The court held that unless accompanied by incitement or call for violence, criticism of the government cannot be labelled sedition. The ruling restricted sedition only insofar as seditious speech tended to incite "public disorder"- a phrase Section 124A itself does not mention but was read into it by the court.

Seven guidelines were introduced thereafter which underline when critical speech cannot be classified as sedition. The Court said, not all speech with "disaffection", "hatred," or "contempt" against the state, but only speech that is likely to incite "public disorder" would qualify as sedition.

Following the Kedar Nath verdict, "public disorder" has been considered a necessary ingredient for the commission of sedition. The court has held that mere sloganeering unaccompanied by any threat to public order would not qualify as sedition.

In subsequent rulings, in Balwant Singh v. State of Punjab (1995) and Dr Vinayak Binayak Sen v. State of Chhattisgarh (2011), the court held the real intent of the case should be considered and the person can be charged with sedition even if they merely circulated the words or idea. Last year in Vinod Dua v Union of India, the Supreme Court quashed FIRs with charges of sedition against the journalist for criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's handling of the Covid-19 crisis and cautioned against misuse of the provision.

In the infamous tool kit case, Disha Ravi, a Bangalore-based climate activist was arrested related to a Farmers' protest because of sedition, promoting enmity and criminal conspiracy. A Delhi court granted bail, observing that the "offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of governments. The trial court rejected the Delhi Police's charge that she was part of a "larger conspiracy" to incite violence in the national capital on January 26.

"I am conscious of the fact that it is very difficult to collect evidence for the offence of conspiracy but I'm equally conscious of the fact that what is difficult to prove for the prosecution in the affirmative is virtually impossible for the defence to prove in the negative," the order stated.

From the above cases, we can clearly see the sedition laws can be easily misused and easily restrict the right to speech and expression. It is an easy tool in the hands of local leaders to shut down a particular dissenter. They can simply approach the local police station and file a complaint. It has a great restraining effect on those who speak and think freely.

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