Sedition: A Threat to Freedom of Speech and Expression

One of the most essential ingredients in a democracy is the right to speak freely. It includes the right to express one’s own opinions and beliefs through words, images, writing, or through any other means, freely and without any fear. Such a right has been enshrined under Article 19(1)(a)[1] of the Indian Constitution. However, it is not an absolute right and some reasonable restrictions can be imposed on Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19(2)[2].

If any person by words, signs, writing etc. does anything which is disrespectful towards the Government of India, or incites violence or hatred against the government, then such person will be punished under Section 124A of Indian Penal Code, 1860.

Sedition is an offence that criminalizes speech that is regarded to be disloyal to or threatening to the state.

Section 124A of Indian Penal Code, 1860 states –

“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 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.”

Origin of Sedition:

Initially, Section 124A was not included in Indian Penal Code. In 1870, Section 124A was added to Chapter VI of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. This section was further modified by IPC (Amendment Act) of 1898. This was done in response to the rising Wahabi movement which was led by Syed Ahmed Barelvi. Moreover, people were demanding autonomy and independence for India. Therefore, to curb people’s speech and expression this law was introduced.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak, an Indian Freedom Fighter, who raised voice against the Britishers was booked twice under this section.

In 1897, he was charged with sedition for giving a statement that incited violence, and which resulted in the death of two British policemen.

In 1898, he was convicted but was given bail.

In 1909, he was again charged with sedition for a seditious writing in his daily newspaper ‘Kesari’.

The constitutionality of Section 124A of Indian Penal Code, 1860 was first discussed in the case of Tara Singh Gopi Chand vs The State (1950)[3].

In this case, there were two pleas which were pending against Tara Singh Gopi Chand for the two speeches that he had given, one in Karnal and the other in Ludhiana. He submitted that Section 124A of Indian Penal Code, 1860 should be declared void as it violates Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression given under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.

The High Court declared Section 124A of Indian Penal Code, 1860 as unconstitutional as it violated Article 19 of Indian Constitution (Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression) and also quashed proceedings against Tara Singh Gopi Chand and gave the order to release him.

The constitutionality of Section 124A was again challenged in the case of Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar, 1962[4].

In this case, Kedar Nath Singh, member of Bihar’s Forward Communist Party, called officials of CID “dogs”, and members of the Government “Congress goondas”. He motivated the audience to strike against the then Government. For this act he was booked under Section 124A. He was convicted under Section 124A by a Magistrate Court. He challenged the magistrate court’s decision in the Patna High Court but his conviction was held to be valid. He then filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court where he challenged that restrictions imposed by Section 124A on Freedom of Speech and Expression were beyond the scope of the legislative power as given under Article 19(2)[5].

The Supreme Court upheld the validity of Section 124A of Indian Penal Code, 1860. The court said that sedition is a crime to prevent subversion of the Government by inciting hatred towards it. The court clarified that citizens are allowed to criticize the government as long as they do not cause public disorder or violence.

The following are some important judgements relating to Section 124A of Indian Penal Code, 1860.

Balwant Singh and Another vs State of Punjab, 1995[6]

Balwant Singh, Direction of Public Instructions (DPI) in Punjab, Chandigarh and Bhupendra Singh, Senior Clerk in Punjab School Education Board, Chandigarh were arrested for raising slogan “Khalistan Zindabad” outside a cinema hall after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. They were sentenced to rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 500 each.

The Supreme Court held that casual raising of slogans once or twice cannot be said to be disaffection against the government. It was held that Section 124A would not apply to this case.

Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, 2012 [7]

In 2012, two girls named Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan, were arrested by the Mumbai Police. The arrest was made after they expressed their dissatisfaction at a bandh which was called by the members of Shiv Sena people in Maharashtra for the incident of Shiv Sena’s chief Bal Thackey’s death. The accusations which were made against the accused were that they posted comments on Facebook and liked the comment at the same time which resulted in widespread public disorder. A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by the petitioners stating that Section 66A of Information Technology Act, 2000 violates the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression of people.

The Supreme Court held that Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000[8] violates Article 19(1)(a)[9] and it is not covered under the grounds of reasonable restrictions given under Article 19(2)[10].

Conclusion:

India is one of the biggest democracies in the world and Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression is one of the most important ingredients of democracy. Any speech or expression against the policies of the Government should not be considered as sedition. Section 124A should not be misused. Recently, current Chief Justice of India N. V. Ramana said that Section 124A was being misused by the government and also asked the government to consider repealing the section. As it was a law that was used by the Britishers against the Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi.         

It is very important to amend the existing laws. A clear distinction should be made between incitement of unpleasant circumstances and expressing one’s own dissent. 


[1] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1142233/ (Last visited on 24th August, 2021 at 2:00 PM)

[2] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/493243/ (Last visited on 24th August, 2021 at 2:25 PM)

[3] 1951 CriLJ 449

[4] 1962 AIR 955, 1962 SCR Supl. (2) 769

[5] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/493243/ (Last visited on 24th August, 2021 at 3:30 PM)

[6] (1995) 3 SCC 214

[7] AIR 2015 SC 1523

[8]https://eprocure.gov.in/cppp/rulesandprocs/kbadqkdlcswfjdelrquehwuxcfmijmuixngudufgbuubgubfugbububjxcgfvsbdihbgfGhdfgFHytyhRtMjk4NzY= (Last visited on 24th August, 2021 at 4:10 PM)

[9] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1142233/ (Last visited on 24th August, 2021 at 4:30 PM)

[10] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/493243/ (Last visited on 24th August, 2021 at 4:35 PM)

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