What does sedition mean in India?
  • Sedition in India is defined by section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code.
  • Section 124A was introduced by the British colonial government in 1870 when it felt the need for a specific section to deal with radical Wahabi movement of the 19th century, led by Syed Ahmed Barelvi and centred around Patna.
  • Section 124 A of IPC says, “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 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.”
  • NCRB data shows that between 2016 to 2019, there has been a whopping 160% increase in the filing of sedition charges with a conviction rate of just 3.3%.
  • Of the 96 people charged in 2019, only two could be convicted.
Arguments in Support of Section 124A:
  • 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 law 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 face a 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.
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 constitutionally 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 rulers is very fundamental to the idea of democracy.
  • The British, who introduced sedition to oppress Indians, have themselves abolished the law in their country. There is no reason why India should not abolish this section.
  • The terms used under Section 124A like ‘disaffection’ are vague and subject to different interpretations to the whims and fancies of the investigating officers.
  • IPC and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 2019 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 need for Section 124A.
  • The sedition law is being misused as a tool to persecute political dissent. A wide and concentrated executive discretion is inbuilt 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 inconsistent with India’s international commitments.
Legal stand:
  • Courts have deprecated the tendency to invoke this grave charge for mere expressions of critical views. SC has said that even words that indicate disaffection towards the government cannot be termed seditious, unless there is actual incitement to violence and intention to cause disorder.
  • Civil rights activists and legal experts have long asserted that the State authorities have been misusing the sedition law to target citizens who simply express their legitimate views. Moreover, the trial courts have mostly disregarded or ignored the Supreme Court’s interpretation of sedition law.
  • Cases related to it
    • Kedar Nath Singh vs. State of Bihar in 1962
      • A Constitutional Bench of SC upheld the validity of Section 124-A but laid down 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.
    • Maneka Gandhi case of 1978
      • Supreme Court held that criticising and drawing general 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.
    • Romesh Thapar vs Union of India  (HC)
      • Pointed out the incompatibility of the laws of sedation. Effort to ban publications on the purported threats that they pose to public safety were ruled unconstitutional.
    • Shreya Singhal vs union of India :
      • Declared IT Act section 66A as unconstitutional. The court ruled that the speech howsoever offensive, annoying or inconvenient cannot be prosecuted unless its utterance has, at the least, a proximate connection with any incitement or disruption in public order
What SC has to say?
  • The Supreme Court has clarified that sedition charges cannot be brought against a person merely for raising a voice against the government or its policies
  • The authorities, while dealing with offences under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, shall be guided by the principles laid down by the Constitution Bench in Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar.
  • The court had clarified in its 1962 verdict 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 violence against the government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder”
  • The court had clarified that comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapproval of government actions, without exciting those feelings which generate the inclination to cause public disorder by acts of violence was not sedition.
  • The court had pointed out two essential ingredients required to establish the crime of sedition:
    • The acts must be intended to have the “effect of subverting the government” by violent means.
    • The acts must be intended to create disorder or disturbance of public peace and order by resort to violence and must incite violence
Law Commission view:
  • The Law Commission has said that a person should not be charged with sedition for “merely expressing a thought that is not in consonance with the policy of the Government of the day”.
  • It has said that the stringent sedition law should be invoked only in cases “where intention” behind the act is to “disrupt public order or to overthrow the Government with violence and illegal means”.
What can be done?
  1. Baliable: all speech-related offences should be made bailable offences; this would lessen the harmful impact of using arrest and custody as a way of harassing anyone exercising their rights under Article 19(1)(a).
  2. Non Cognisable: the offences should be made non-cognisable so that there is at least a judicial check on the police acting on the basis of politically motivated complaints.
  3. Prior Government Sanction: For some laws it is mandatory under Section 196(1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure to obtain prior sanction of the government before taking cognisance of the offences. This needs to be extended to the offence of sedition under Section 124A.
  4. Burden of proof: In the case of hate speech, it is important to raise the burden of proof on those who claim that their sentiments are hurt rather than accept them at face value.
  5. Deterring action: And finally, it is crucial that courts begin to take action against those who bring malicious complaints against speech acts.

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