THE CONTEXT: The Supreme Court’s order on 11 May 2022, “putting in abeyance” Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, which prescribes punishment for “sedition,” has been greeted with a measure of relief by the various sections. In a brief order delivered in S.G. Vombatkere vs Union of India, a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court of India effectively suspended the operation of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). This article examines the issue in detail.
- In a historic development, the Supreme Court on 11 May 2022 ordered that the 152-year-old sedition law under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code should be effectively kept in abeyance till the Union Government reconsiders the provision. In an interim order, the Court urged the Centre and the State governments to refrain from registering any FIRs under the said provision while it was under re-consideration. The Court also held that those already booked under Section 124A IPC and are in jail can approach the concerned courts for bail.
THE ANALYSIS OF THE PRESENT STAND OF THE SUPREME COURT
- Direction for reconsideration of sedition law was issued after the Union government filed an affidavit informing the Supreme Court that it had decided to re-examine the law as part of the Prime Minister’s efforts to scrap outdated laws and compliance burdens. The deposition, by itself, offered no firm commitment on whether the government would recommend to Parliament a complete removal of Section 124A. Another pertinent issue is whether the government is serious about re-examining and reconsidering the provisions of Section 124A or was it simply buying time to take the fight to another day? If it was serious, it would have come forward and put all pending cases on hold with an assurance to review them and weed out those that were clearly make-believe. The government was also ambiguous in stating that re-examination and reconsideration would be by the competent forum, namely the Parliament.
- The court’s interim order balances security interests and integrity of the state on one hand, and the civil liberties of citizens on the other. However, it is not the prerogative of the court to strike down any law made by the legislature if it is not in contravention of the Constitution. A constitutional bench in 1962 has already held the Sedition Law to be Constitutional and we need a larger bench (Five judge bench in Kedar Nath Case) to re-examine the law’s constitutional validity. Though the rights and freedoms under Articles 19 and 21 have been expanded from time to time by the judiciary, it is yet to be ascertained whether the ‘reasonable restrictions’ under Article 19(2) can also be expanded or interpreted in a wider context by the judiciary. If so, then it might have irrevocable implications on the Constitutional scheme of governance. As empirical evidence shows the misuse of the sedition law by the executive, the judiciary has to step in to safeguard the rights of the people and enforce rule of law. But, in order that the judgement to be effective in practice, other limbs of the Criminal Justice System must also internalize the spirit of the judgment in its working.
WHAT IS SEDITION?
- Cambridge Dictionary defines sedition as language or behaviour intended to persuade other people to oppose their government and change it, sometimes by using violence.
SEDITION LAW IN INDIA SECTION 124A IPC:
- Section 124A 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 attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India”.
Ø This means that the law punishes attempts to create “hatred,” “contempt,” or “disaffection” towards the government as “sedition.” The explanation to Section 124A explicitly excludes “disapprobation” of the measures or actions of the government that does not excite or attempt to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection.
- The word “disaffection”, the provision explains, “includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity”. However, comments without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, will not constitute an offence under this section.
SEDITION AS A COGNIZABLE OFFENSE:
- In 1962 the Supreme Court of India interpreted the section to apply only if there is, say, “incitement to violence” or “overthrowing a democratically elected government through violent means”.
- Sedition was made a cognizable offence for the first time in history in India during the tenure of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1973, that is, arrest without a warrant was now permissible.
THE HISTORY OF SEDITION
- Sedition laws were enacted around the 17th Century in England in a bid to protect the Crown and the State from any potential uprising. The premise was that people could only have a good opinion of the government, and a bad opinion was detrimental to the functioning of the government and the monarchy. It was subsequently introduced in the Indian Penal Code in 1870.
- Section 124A had been introduced in the Indian Penal Code by the British to punish sedition as an “offence against the state,” and was used to arrest freedom fighters, notably Bal Gangadhar Tilak and M K Gandhi.
- The first known instance of the application of the law was the trial of newspaper editor Jogendra Chandra Bose in 1891.
- Another major case was when Bal Gangadhar Tilak was brought to trial for sedition in 1897 for his lectures and songs at the Shivaji Coronation Ceremony. In 1908, Tilak was again charged with sedition for the publication of a critical article in his magazine Kesari. He was held guilty and sentenced to six years imprisonment by the Bombay High Court, which ruled that no one was permitted to “attribute dishonest or immoral motives to the government.”
- The next landmark sedition case in the pre-independence era was Gandhi’s trial for the offence of sedition for his articles in the Young India magazine. The trial itself was remarkable for his decision to plead guilty to the charge of sedition and Justice Broomfield’s reluctance to sentence him because he did not believe that Gandhi deserved to be charged with sedition in the first place. Mahatma Gandhi had described Section 124A as “the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”.
CONTEMPORARY DEBATE AND DATA
- The law of sedition has been weaponised by the governments. Cases are filed for strange reasons. For example, the widowed mother of a child and the headmistress of a school was arrested and charged with sedition and school children were subjected to questioning for hours only for participating in a play that contained an “objectionable” line relating to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The intention behind the use of the law of sedition is apparently intended to quell dissent and criticism and scare people into submission.
- The offence of sedition has been invoked quite frequently in the recent past. The database of article-14.com called “A Decade of Darkness” is perhaps the only “live” study of sedition cases which informs us that sedition cases filed between 2014 and 2022 doubled as compared to the ones between 2010 and 2014. The number of people adversely affected also doubled— 7,136 versus 3,762. Statistically, the doubling rate is not surprising since the period under consideration also doubled.
- As per the 2020 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, in 2018, 70 sedition cases were filed; however, not a single person was convicted. Similarly, in 2019, 93 cases were filed, while only two were convicted. Similarly, in 2020, 73 cases were filed and no one was convicted of sedition.
- Manipur filed the highest number of sedition cases (15) in 2020, followed by Assam (12), Karnataka (9), Uttar Pradesh (7), Haryana (6) and Delhi (5).
ARGUMENTS AGAINST THE USE OF SEDITION LAW
LAW TO CURB ALL KINDS OF CRITICISM
- The use of sedition law to curb all kinds of criticisms against the government, and not against incitement to violence against the state alone, has been well-documented over the years.
- Whether it is the first information reports (FIRs) against protestors at Koodankulam or the complaints against Kanhaiya Kumar or Amnesty International, Section 124A has been used by governments of all shades to stifle dissent.
- In its everyday application, sedition is deeply embedded in local politics and in variables such as caste, class, and community. For instance, in Haryana, various marginalised groups experience sedition as a tool for upper-caste domination.
BROAD SCOPE OF SECTION 124-A
- Unfortunately, the broad scope of Section 124-A allows it to be used by the State to go after those who challenge its power.
- Whether it is the JNU students, activists such as Hardik Patel and Binayak Sen, authors such as Arundhati Roy, cartoonists such as Aseem Trivedi, or the villagers of Idinthakarai in Tamil Nadu protesting against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant.
- These examples are demonstrative of the misuse of the provision.
PROCESS ITSELF BECOME PUNISHMENT
- Sedition charges are easily slapped, but seldom stick, but cause immense harassment in the process.
- Even if one is eventually acquitted of sedition, the process of having to undergo the trial itself is the punishment.
COLONIAL LEGACY OF THE LAW
- Since its inception 1870, Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which punishes sedition, has been a tool in the hands of the state to curb criticism and dissent though during those times the voices were raised against a foreign rule and in the interest of the nation.
- It has been used by the colonial British government as well as by successive governments of independent India against political dissidents. The colonial intent of the law is part and parcel of what continues to constitute “sedition” in modern-day India.
- The global sentiment today is overwhelmingly anti-sedition with different countries either easing the law or simply getting rid of it. Many democratic countries, including the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda, have held sedition law as undemocratic, undesirable and unnecessary. Australia (2010) and Singapore (2021) have also repealed the Sedition Law in the recent past.
WHY THE LAW CONTINUE TO REMAIN IN THE STATUTE BOOK?
- Unity & Integrity: Section 124A of the IPC has its utility in combating anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements.
- Stability of the state: It protects the elected government from attempts to overthrow the government with violence and illegal means. The continued existence of the government established by law is an essential condition of the stability of the State.
- Contempt of Government: If contempt of court invites penal action, contempt of government should also attract punishment.
- Naxalism and Insurgency: Many districts in different states face maoist insurgency and rebel groups virtually run a parallel administration. These groups openly advocate the overthrow of the state government by revolution. Against this backdrop, the abolition of Section 124A would be ill-advised merely because it has been wrongly invoked in some highly publicized cases.
CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY DEBATE ON THE CONTROVERSIAL ISSUE OF SEDITION
A COLONIAL LAW MEANT TO SUPPRESS INDIANS
- It is nothing short of a remarkable fete that India’s founding leaders ensured that Section 124A was not and is not part of the Constitution.
- They understood the perils of making sedition ‘a reasonable restriction’ on the freedom of speech and expression under Article 13 of the draft Constitution, but it continues to be a criminal offence.
- And, the Constituent Assembly vigorously debated the offensive nature of this law and the possibility that it will be misused to jail those critical of the government—the only reason the British wove it into the IPC in 1870.
CONSTITUTION WITHOUT ‘SEDITION’
- Congress leader and educationist K.M. Munshi, a key voice in the Constituent Assembly, said that there should be no room for ‘sedition’ in independent India.
He argued: “Now that we have a democratic government a line must be drawn between criticism of government which should be welcome and incitement which would undermine the security or order on which civilized life is based, or which is calculated to overthrow the State. Therefore, the word ‘sedition’ has been omitted. As a matter of fact, the essence of democracy is criticism of Government.”
- While key founding leaders opposed the draconian law, the real credit for sedition not finding a place in the Constitution goes to Sikh leader Bhupinder Singh Mann who represented East Punjab in the Constituent Assembly, made a case for upholding liberty—and appealed to them to vote against embedding sedition into the Constitution.
NEHRU’S VIEW ON THE SUBJECT
- He was not in support of the sedition law and opined that:
“Take again Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code. Now so far as I am concerned that particular section is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons, if you like, in any body of laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better.”
JUDICIAL INTERVENTIONS SINCE INDEPENDENCE:
- In 1951, the Punjab High Court ruled Section 124A to be unconstitutional. A similar ruling was passed in 1959 by the Allahabad High Court, which also concluded that it struck at the very root of free speech.
- Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar,1962: The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of Section 124-A (sedition) on the basis that this power was required by the state to protect itself. However, it said that every citizen has a right to say or write about the government by way of criticism or comment. A citizen can criticize the government to the extent it does not incite people into violence against the government or with the intention of creating public disorder.
- Alavi vs State of Kerala,1982: The Supreme Court held that sloganeering, criticizing of Parliament or Judicial setup does not amount to sedition.
- Balwant Singh v State of Punjab,1995: The Supreme Court acquitted persons from charges of sedition for shouting slogans such as “Khalistan Zindabad”. The court held that the mere raising of slogans by two individuals alone cannot be said as sedition. Further, it is also not considered an attempt aimed to excite hatred or disaffection against the government.
- Sanskar Marathe vs The State of Maharashtra, 2015: In this case, the Bombay High Court issued certain guidelines police officials must follow before filing a sedition case against anyone. These guidelines include an objective evaluation of the seditious material. By evaluation, the police must form an opinion on whether the words and actions caused disaffection and disloyalty to the government.
- Rajat Sharma v. The Union of India Case, 2021: In this case, the court ruling said that disagreeing with the views and policies of the government will not attract the offence of sedition. So the provision of sedition cannot be invoked to quiet the disquiet (criminalizing the critics).
- More recently, sedition charges against journalists (Vinod Dua, Siddique Kappan), farmers in Sirsa (Haryana), filmmaker Ayesha Sultana (Kerala) and even Ex-UP Governor Dr Aziz Qureshi (for making remarks against the present Chief Minister) are the incidents when Court granted interim relief, giving us hope that the misuse and arbitrary application of law to silence the voice of the people will be stopped.
Understanding Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar Case, 1962
The Court noted that the offence occurs in the chapter of the IPC relating to offences against the state (IPC Chapter VI) —not against any individual or political dispensation. The Court then laid down the law in the following words:
“The provisions of the sections along with the explanations make it reasonably clear that the sections aim at rendering penal only such activities as would be intended, or have a tendency, to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence… It is only when the words, written or spoken, etc, which have the pernicious tendency or intention of creating public disorder or disturbance of law and order that the law steps in to prevent such activities in the interest of public order.”
Note that the keywords are “against the state,” “violence,” and “public disorder.” Without them, the offence of sedition does not take place.
Justice A P Shah (2017), while delivering the M N Roy Memorial Lecture, explained the Kedar Nath judgment further: The Court upheld the constitutionality of sedition, but limited its application to “acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder, or disturbance of law and order, or incitement to violence.” It distinguished these acts from “very strong speech” or the use of “vigorous words” which were strongly critical of the government.
WHY THE SEDITION LAW SHOULD BE DONE AWAY WITH?
POOR IMPLEMENTATION OF COURT GUIDELINES
- Every time the sedition case was getting quashed, the Judiciary guided the law enforcement agencies regarding its application. But the law enforcement agencies are not following the guidelines in letter and spirit.
INCREASING MISUSE OF SEDITION
- Between 2016 and 2019, the number of cases filed under Section 124-A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) increased by 160% while the rate of conviction dropped to 3.3% in 2019 from 33.3% in 2016, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
RECOMMENDATION OF LAW COMMISSION
- In 2018, the Law Commission of India questioned how far it is justified to retain Section 124A. It even suggested to re-think or repealing Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code.
AGAINST INDIA’S INTERNATIONAL COMMITMENT
- In 1979, India ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It sets forth internationally recognized standards for the protection of freedom of expression. However, misuse of sedition and arbitrary slapping of charges are inconsistent with India’s international commitments.
ABOLITION OF SEDITION IN OTHER PARLIAMENTARY SYSTEMS
- The U.K. abolished the offence of sedition in 2010. Whereas, India is still retaining the law given by the British Empire. Similarly, in Australia also, following the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) the term sedition was removed and replaced with references to ‘urging violence offences’.
- Various Sections of IPC, National Securities Act (NSA) and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) have provisions that penalize “disrupting the public order” or “overthrowing the government with violence and illegal means”. These are sufficient for protecting national integrity. There is no specific need for Section 124A.
SEDITION LAW IN OTHER COUNTRIES
THE UNITED KINGDOM
- The sedition law was officially repealed under Section 73 of the Coroners and Justice Act, 2009, citing a chilling effect on freedom of speech and expression.
- The common law on sedition, which is traced to the Statute of Westminster, 1275, when the King was considered the holder of divine right, was termed “arcane” and “from a bygone era when freedom of expression wasn’t seen as a right it is today.”
THE UNITED STATES
- Sedition is a federal felony under the Federal Criminal Code and was most recently used against rioters involved in the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.
- Despite the First Amendment that forbids any restrictions on free speech, “conspiracy to interfere directly with the operation of the government” and not just speech is considered sedition.
- Repealed its sedition law in 2010.
- Repealed the law in 2021 citing that several new legislations can sufficiently address the actual need for sedition law without its chilling effects.
THE WAY FORWARD:
- The Union and the states need to engage in wide-ranging consultations with relevant stakeholders in the spirit of the SC judgment with a view to the eventual satisfactory resolution of this issue.
- The definition of sedition should be narrowed down, to include only the issues pertaining to the territorial integrity of India as well as the sovereignty of the country. India is the largest democracy in the world and the right to free speech and expression is an essential ingredient of democracy. The expression or thought that is not in consonance with the policy of the government of the day should not be considered sedition.
- India’s aspirations to be a world leader will get a boost if we align ourselves with the best examples of the world as most of the democratic countries around the world have either done away with the Sedition Law or diluted it.
- The government shall show some restraint in invoking such a draconian law and shall also educate the Law enforcement authorities to prevent the problem of misuse. The enforcement authorities might be trained regarding the application and non-application in cases of sedition and other criminal defamation suits. It is also imperative to rethink keeping the sedition as a cognizable offence, which gives more scope for its misuse.
- The present-day laws of the modern democratic society must reflect the needs and demands of the society as well as be strong enough to protect the liberty of the citizens. Any change/ amendment to the law shall be made by keeping the public interest at the centre and in line with the international covenants & ethos of “Argumentative Indians.” Over the past few years, the government has already repealed various colonial laws in line with the idea of “Minimum Government and Maximum Governance” but the laws such as Sedition, Blasphemy, Unlawful Assembly etc must also be given a thought to bring a real change.
- The ideals of the Arthashastra (one of the philosophical sources of the Constitution of India), shall be given a thought that the king (Prime Minister) and other machinery of the state shall be benevolent towards its citizens. However, at the same time, it should not relegate its duties of protecting the safety, security, unity and integrity of the state.
It is power and power alone which, only when exercised by the king with impartiality and in proportion to guilt either over his son or his enemy, maintains both this world and the next.
The just and victorious king administers justice in accordance with Dharma (established law), Sanstha (customary law), Nyaya (edicts, announced law) and Vyavahara (evidence, conduct).
— Arthashastra 3.1
THE CONCLUSION: The enforcement or the threat of invocation of sedition constitutes an insidious form of unauthorised self-censorship by producing a chilling effect on the exercise of one’s fundamental right to free speech and expression. That is why the law needs to be repealed. However, it is unlikely that any government will give up this power, and it is therefore left to the courts to re-examine the constitutionality of sedition. It is not enough to expect an acquittal by the courts; we need to stop the misuse of the law to silence dissent by removing the source of the power itself or at least narrowing down its expanse.
MAINS PRACTICE QUESTIONS
- “Laws that can be easily misused should be reconsidered.” Critically analyse the statement in the context of the recent Supreme Court order related to Section 124A IPC.
- Discuss how Section 124A IPC has been misused in post-independence India? Should the law be repealed, if not, suggest measures to restrict its misuse?
- Despite the attempts made by the higher judiciary to restrict the scope of sedition to an act of incitement to violence, its application by the executive narrates a story of its continued misuse. Illustrate and comment.