Sedition law in India

Introduction

In recent times, there has been an increase in the instances in which sedition charges were pressed against intellectuals, human right activists, University students and journalists.

What is sedition

The Indian penal code defines sedition ( Section 124A ) as an offense committed when “any person by words, either spoken or by written, or by signs, or visible representation, or otherwise brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt or excites or attempts to excite dissatisfaction towards government established by law in India”.

Dissatisfaction includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity. However, comments without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or dissatisfaction will not constitute an offence under the sedition.

Punishment for the offense of Sedition

Sedition is a non bailable offense. Punishment under the section 124A ranges from imprisonment upto three years to a life term to which fine may be added.

A person charged under this law is barred from a government job. They have to live without their passport and must produce themselves in the court at all times and when required.

Origin of Sedition law in Modern India

The law was originally drafted in 1837 by Thomas Macaulay, the British historian-politician but was inexplicably omitted when the IPC was enacted in 1860.

Section 124A was inserted in 1870 by an amendment introduced by Sir James Stephen when it felt the need for a specific section to deal with the offense. It was one of the many draconian laws enacted to stifle any voices of dissent at that time.

Famous Sedition Trials during Freedom Movement

Some of the most famous sedition trials of the late 19th and 20th century involved Indian nationalist leaders. The initial cases that invoked the sedition law included numerous prosecutions against the editors of nationalist newspapers.

The first among them was the trial of Jogendra Chandra Bose in 1891. Bose, the editor of the newspaper, Bangobasi, wrote an article criticizing the age of consent Bill for posing a threat to the religion and for its coercive relationship with Indians.

The most well known cases are the three sedition trials of Bal Gangadar Tilak and the trial of Mahatma Gandhi in 1922. Gandhi was charged along with Shankarlal Banker, the proprietor of young Indi, for the8 three articles published in the weekly.

Arguments in support of Section 124 A

  • Section 124A of the IPC has its utility in combating anti national, secessionist and terrorist elements.
  • It protects the elected government from attempts to overthrow the government with violence and illegal means. The continued existence of the government established by laws is an essential condition of the stability of the state.
  • If contempt of court invites penal action, contempt of government should also attract punishment.
  • Many districts in different states faces a Maoist insurgency and rebel groups virtually run a parallel administration. These groups openly advocate the overthrow of the state government by revolution.
  • Against the backdrop, the abolition of section 124A would be ill advised merely because it has been wrongly invoked in some highly publicized cases.

Arguments against section 124A

  • Section 124A is a relic of colonial legacy and unsuited in a democracy.  It is a constraint on the legitimate exercise of constitutionality guaranteed freedom of speech and expression
  • Dissent and criticism of the government are essential ingredients of robust public debate in a vibrant democracy. They should not be constructed as sedition. Right to question, criticize and change rules is very fundamental to the idea of democracy.
  • The British who introduced sedition to oppress Indians has themselves abolished the law in their country. There is no reason why should not India abolish this section.
  • The terms used under Section 124A like ‘dissatisfaction’ are vague and subject to different interpretations to the whims and fancies of the investigating officers.

IPC and unlawful Activities Prevention Act have provisions that penalize “disrupting the public order” or “ overthrowing the government with violence and illegal means”. These are sufficient for protecting the national integrity. There is no need for Section 124A.

The sedition law is being misused as a tool to prosecute potential dissident. A wide and concentrated executive discretion is in built into it which permits the blatant abuse. In 1979 India ratified the international covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Which sets forth internationally recognized standards for the protection of freedom of expression. However, misuse of sedition and arbitrary slapping of charges are in consistent with India’s international commitments.

The disutility of the Sedition law

  • The data released by the National Crime Records Bureau for the year between 2014 and 2016 reflect the disutility of the law for the criminal justice system.
  • Under the title “offenses against the state” the report shows a total of 179 arrests for sedition however no charge sheets were filed by the police in over 70% of the cases, and only two convictions during this time period. The data belie the claim for retaining the section 124A of IPC

What is the viewpoint of the law commission of India

  • In August 2018, the law commission of India published a consultation paper recommending that it is time to rethink or repeal the section 124A of the IPC that deals with sedition.
  • In the 39th report (1968) the law commission had rejected the idea of repealing the section.
  • In its 42nd Report (1971) the panel wanted the scope of the section to be expanded to cover the constitution, the legislature and the judiciary, in addition to the government to be established by law , as institutions against which ‘dissatisfaction’ should not be tolerated.
  • In the recent consultation paper on the sedition, the law commission has suggested involving 124A to only criminalize acts committed with the intention to disrupt public order or to overthrow the government with violence.

Sedition law and stand of Supreme Court of India

The constitutionality of sedition was challenged in the S.C in Kadar Nath vs. State of Bihar (1962). The court upheld the law on the basis that this power was required by the state to protect itself. However, it had added a vital caveat that a person could be prosecuted for sedition only if his acts caused incitement to violence or intention or tendency to create public disorder or cause disturbance of public peace.

The court held that “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 involve against the government established by law or with the intention of creating public order.

In September 2016, the Supreme Court had reiterated these necessity safeguards and held that they should be followed by all authorities.

Sedition law in international jurisdiction

  • The United Kingdom deleted seditious libel through the Coroner’s and Justice Act, 2009.
  • In Australia, following the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) the term sedition was removed and replaced with reference to ‘Urging violence offenses’

Conclusion

India is the largest democracy of 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 as sedition. The law commission has rightly said ‘an expression of frustration over the state of affairs cannot be treated as sedition’. If the country is not open to positive criticism there would be no difference between the pre and post independence era. Ofcourse it is essential to protect national integrity, given the legal opinion and the views of the government in favour of the law, it is unlikely that section 124A will be scrapped soon. However, the section should not be misused as a tool to curb free speech. The Supreme Court, given in Kedar Nath case, on prosecution Under the law can check its misuse.

Reference

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