section 124 A : the much misused sedition law

Section 124-A of IPC (Indian Penal Code) or Sedition Law states that “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.” This controversial law does not state that sedition is an act against the nation or the country. But in popular narrative, sedition is taken as “deshdroh” or an anti-national act as against “rajdroh” or an anti-government act.

On February 23, a Delhi court granted bail to activist Disha Ravi in a sedition case. The Delhi court said, “The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments.” It also said the government could not put citizens “behind bars simply because they chose to disagree with the state policies”. On March 3, the Supreme Court dismissed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah demanding he be charged with sedition. the Supreme Court said, “Expression of views which is dissent and different from the opinion of the government cannot be termed seditious.” The Supreme Court also imposed a fine of Rs 50,000 on the petitioners for making an unsubstantiated charge of sedition.

The sedition law has been in debate ever since it was brought into force by the colonial British rulers in 1860s. Several top freedom movement leaders including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were booked under the sedition law. Mahatma Gandhi described it as the “prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.” Nehru had described it as “highly objectionable and obnoxious” which “should have no place in any body of laws that we might pass”. Nehru said, “The sooner we get rid of it the better.” Still, the law has survived in India through governments headed by from Nehru to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

As far as the Supreme Court is concerned, sedition is seemingly the flavor of the year. This is not surprising, considering the rampant use of this law in the recent past, not just against journalists but also against other peaceful dissenters. Let us look at just the last nine months. On September 3, 2020, the Uttarakhand High Court granted bail to a journalist who was jailed for sedition for having put up a video on his social media page implying that a doctor’s wife was the sister of the Uttarakhand CM’s wife. The video also made certain allegations of corruption against the CM. Finally, through its judgment on October 27, not only the High Court quash the FIR against the journalist, but also directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate the allegations of corruption against the CM.

Sometimes sedition is the main offence, and at other times, it is combined with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA) and other draconian laws. Consistently, we have seen that a mere difference of opinion from the establishment lands people in jail on grounds of sedition. The targets usually include activists, Dalits, Muslims, tribals, and journalists. The Supreme Court on numerous occasions in the past has ruled that raising slogans against the government or criticizing its policies is not sedition. In a 1962 case, the Supreme Court had ruled “citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the government.” The five-judge bench had added a rider that while criticizing, a citizen could “incite people to violence against the government.”

What is interesting is that while the courts in many cases have given a narrow interpretation to the provision of sedition, granted both anticipatory and regular bails, and quashed FIRs, this has not stopped the police from filing FIRs on totally frivolous complaints and at times arresting those accused, including young students, journalists, tribal activists and similar other dissenters. The law of sedition has been utterly misused across the board, causing a substantial chilling effect. Those who are prominent and have the resources are able even to approach the Supreme Court directly but many others have to spend time in jail or in hiding, affecting their families, jobs, careers and studies.

References

  1. https://www.theleaflet.in/why-the-supreme-court-must-declare-sedition-law-unconstitutional/
  2. https://www.indiatoday.in/news-analysis/story/anti-national-or-anti-government-what-is-sedition-1775513-2021-03-04

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