- Evolution of Sedition law from the beginning
- Analysis: Criticism
- Scope of misuse of Law as Political Tool
- 22nd Law Commission of India on Section 124A of IPC: Key Recommendations:
Definition: Conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or
monarch can be considered as sedition.
- Section 124A of IPC defines sedition as “any action whether by words, signs or visible
representation which brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempt to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India”. The section also contains a clarification to the effect that the word “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.
- Under this section, Sedition is punishable with imprisonment for life.
Evolution of Sedition Law from the beginning
- Not a part of original IPC enacted in 1860.
- Added a decade later as fears of possible uprising plagued the colonial authorities.
Note: Other laws to suppress dissent at that time -> Dramatic Performance Act, 1876
and the Vernacular Press Act, 1878.
- The British India government liberally used this provision during India’s freedom struggle to suppress any kind of dissent.
- Constituent Assembly: An attempt to include sedition as an express ground for limiting speech under Article 19(2) was successfully resisted.
- The law was in a way reimposed in 1951 through First Constitutional Amendment which added two expressions – “friendly relations with foreign state” and “public order” – as grounds for imposing “reasonable restrictions” on free speech.
- A Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court upheld the validity of Section 124-A in the celebrated case of Kedar Nath Singh vs. State of Bihar in 1962 but at the same time attempted to restrict the scope of its misuse.
- The Court upheld the right to comment in strong terms upon the measures or acts of government and laid down that that a person can be charged with sedition only if there is incitement to violence in his speech or writing or an intention or tendency to create disorder or disturbance of law and order.
- The court said “A citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the
Government, or its measures, by way of criticism or comment, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the Government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder”.
- In the Menaka Gandhi case of 1978, the Supreme Court held that criticizing and drawing opinion against the government’s policies and decisions within a reasonable limit that does not incite people to rebel is consistent with the freedom of speech.
- Inspite of these Supreme Court verdicts, the law continues to be misused.
- NCRB report says 356 cases of sedition under Section 124A of the IPC has been registered and 548 people arrested between 2015-2020, with just six convictions.
- The supreme court has to pitch in regularly to protect citizen’s freedom of speech being suppressed by the sedition law. For e.g.
- In March 2021, while hearing a plea to “terminate” the Lok Sabha membership of Dr. Farooq Abdullah and book him for sedition, the court held that voicing dissent against government doesn’t amount to sedition.
- In June 2021, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court quashed a sedition case registered against journalist and Padma Shri awardee Vinod Dua for his critical remarks against the Prime Minister and Union government in a Youtube telecast.
- Too Broad and vaguely worded definition is used to suppress liberty of citizens and Criminalize dissent.
- This vagueness was misused to suppress dissent and imprison freedom fighters such as Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak who criticized the policies of the colonial administration.
- This reduces government accountability as the government is able to ignore its critics and in turn charge them with sedition.
- Very strict nature of the law – non-bailable, cognizable and punishment that can extend to life has a strong chilling effect on free speech and dissent.
Note: “Doctrine of Chilling Effect on Speech considers the probability of a legal provision causing psychological barriers in the free exercise of the right”.
- Critics of the sedition law argue that this doctrine was not sufficiently developed in 1962 and thus the Kedarnath Singh Judgment should be revised.
- E.g. After Hathras gang rape case 22 sedition cases were filed. “Vinod Dua” – a journalist was charged with sedition for criticizing governments activities during COVID-19 lockdown.
Scope of misuse of Law as Political Tool:
- Gandhi had said “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 citizen”.
- More than 20 cases were filed under sedition law after the CAA protests.
- Trial Courts have mostly ignored the 1962 Supreme Court Judgment and have imposed the law even in cases where there was no incitement to violence or attempt towards public disorder.
- Sedition is not one of the grounds for reasonable restrictions on free speech provided under Article 19(2).
- Law commission of India in a consultation paper, in Aug 2018 observed that berating the country or a particular aspect of it cannot be treated as “sedition” and the charge can only be invoked in cases where the intention is to overthrow the government with violence and illegal means.
- UK, which introduced sedition in India, have also abolished it.
- In face, in March 2023, even Lahore High Court in Pakistan annulled the offence of ‘Sedition’ in the Pakistan Penal Code.
- Our Criminal law is equipped with other provisions to deal with most of the violations as defined right now under sedition
Support of the law
- Supreme court has upheld constitutionality of the law. Without sedition, the state would be in jeopardy if the government was subverted.
- Law itself might not be problematic, but its implementation is.
- Misuse of the law doesn’t invalidate it.
- Country faces many threats – Terrorism, Naxalism, Enemy states etc. and thus a strong law preventing incitement of violence against state is important to protect unity and integrity of the country.
Supreme Court puts the Sedition Law on Hold (May 2022)
- A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court has suspended pending criminal trials and court proceedings under Section 124A (sedition) of the IPC till the Centre completes its exercise in re-examining its provisions.
22nd Law Commission of India on Section 124A of IPC: Key Recommendations:
The commission recommended that the law should not be repealed but it should be retained with some changes.
- A necessary legal instrument in the face of threats to India’s Internal Security including Maoism, Militancy, secessionist movements etc. The report also quotes NSA Ajit Doval on wars against Invisible Armies, and on a “civil society” that can be subverted, divided and manipulated to hurt the interest of the nation.
- Allegation of misuse don’t automatically justify the repeal of the Section 124A.
- Further, in the absence of provisions like Section 124A of IPC, any expression that incites violence against the government would invariably be tried under special laws and counter-terror legislation, which contain much more stringent provisions to deal with the accused.
- While any alleged misuse of section 124A of IPC can be reined in by laying down
adequate procedural safeguards, repealing the provisions altogether can have “serious adverse ramifications for the security and integrity of the country”, while
the subversive forces getting a free hand to further their sinister agenda as a consequence.
- It has recommended that the following amendments be made to Section 124A of IPC:
- Include the Kedarnath ruling into the provisions of the law by adding the words “with the tendency to incite violence or cause public disorder”. The report also defines the tendency to incite violence as a “mere inclination to incite violence or cause public disorder rather than proof of actual violence or imminent threat to violence”.
- Enhancing the imprisonment for sedition to “remove an oddity”
- One of the criticisms against the provision is that it leaves judges with wide discretion on sentencing.
- Section 124A has a jail term of up to three years or life imprisonment. It means either imprisonment for life or imprisonment upto three years only, but nothing in between.
- The law commission has now proposed enhancing the jail term upto seven years or life imprisonment.
- To prevent the misuse of the law, the report suggested including a procedural safeguard that no FIR shall be registered for sedition “unless a police officer, not below the rank of inspector, conducts a preliminary inquiry and on the basis of the report made by the said police officer the Central Government or the State government, as the case may be, grants permission for registering a FIR.
- Other general suggestions:
- The police should not use Section 124A to stifle dissent or criticism of the government.
- The courts should interpret Section 124A narrowly and should not convict a person under this section unless there is clear and convincing evidence that the person has committed the offence.
- These recommendations are a step backwards.
- The Supreme Court in May 2022 had stayed the law and expressed strong reservation and indicated that it could hear arguments in favor of striking down the colonial provision that has proved to be prone to misuse.
- The report doesn’t engage seriously enough with criticism of the sedition provision, including concerns expressed by the Supreme Court.
- Parliament should do an exhaustive re-examination of the law to determine if it will be appropriate or not to continue the usage.
- Clarifications given by Supreme Court in Kedarnath case and Law Commission of India should be strictly followed – “section 124A applies only when there is violence or incitement to violence against government”. These provisions should be introduced through an amendment to the bill as suggested by 22nd Law Commission of India.
- Simplify the definition to prevent its misuse for curbing dissent and for political reasons.
- Reduce the severity of the law – make it bailable, non-cognizable etc.
- A sign of mature republic is its willingness to stand up to scrutiny by its citizens and accommodate dissent and criticism of the government should not be construed as sedition.
Conclusion1 (Supporting the law)
- The word sedition is extremely nuanced, and the law needs to be applied with caution. It should only be used against serious cases which involves provocation to raise arms against government, demand for separate country etc. But, the legal system needs sedition provision (with some amendments), mostly to act as a deterrent, and on occasion to use against serious offenders.
Conclusion2 (Critical of the law)
- Personal Liberty and Right to Free Speech are hallmarks of liberal democracy and sedition laws and their gross misuse attack the very foundation of these liberties enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The need of the hour requires the judiciary to review the colonial law.
- Even if abolishing of the law is not feasible, it should be toned down and string guidelines should be issued to limit its indiscriminate abuse of the law. This will not only help India’s democratic standing but would also safeguard freedom of expression in the country.
▫ Discuss the provisions and scope of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) pertaining to sedition. Examine its constitutionality in light of freedom of speech and expression [15 marks, 250 words]
▫ In light of the recent report by 22nd Law Commission of India, evaluate the need for legislative reforms or amendments to the sedition law in India [10 marks, 150 words]