Should India Abolish Sedition Law?

The sight of JNU students protesting against the government is something which every Indian reminisces while talking about sedition law in the country. Simply put, Sedition means  bringing hatred against the government, be it by one’s actions, words or gestures. The law of Sedition can also be sometimes misused by the government to target people when they do not agree to its policy. This is where the guardian of the Indian Constitution, i.e. , the Supreme Court of India comes to picture so as to strike a balance between the law of sedition and people’s  freedom of speech. Everyone has different views on sedition, since it is a very subjective concept. For some people a particular criticism of government is okay, but for the others it amounts to sedition. The ebbs and flows in sedition laws is characterised by many case laws and the question whether sedition is an ideal law in  an ideal society still requires more thorough answers.

Sedition in the Indian law is defined in Section 124(A)[1] of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which states-

124A.Sedition.—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 inIndia, shall be punished withim­prisonment 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.

The offence of sedition under Section 124A is a cognizable, non-bailable and non-compoundable offence which can be tried only by a Court of Session. Since it is a non-bailable offence, bail is not a matter of right of the person accused of sedition and thus it is at the discretion of the judge to grant bail. Also if a person is charged under this section, he/she is barred from taking up a government job and must produce himself/herself before the court as and when required.

The section clearly defines the ambit of sedition with respect to freedom of speech. For example, the explanation 2 states that comments expressing dissatisfaction with the measures of the government with a view to obtain their alteration by lawful means will not be counted sedition. A recent example of this could be the farmer’s protest, which though turned violent during its penultimate phase, but was not regarded a case of sedition since their aim was to convince the government to change the laws regarding them.

Why is Sedition Law needed ?

The need of Sedition laws is very much essential for every country. It helps to protect the government from attempts of overthrowing it by fierce and riotous attempts by any individual, or for that matter a group of people. Thus, striking down of this law would be foolish merely on the ground that the government slaps this section to control the freedom of speech of people in the country. Sedition and Freedom of Speech are two sides of a coin and co-exist with each other.

It cannot be done that the sedition law is discarded completely, since the government’s criticism will then may be accompanied by violence, as people would think that since no law is punishing their actions, they are free to abuse the government at their whims and fancies. On the other hand, Freedom of Speech is a constitutional right granted by Section 19 of the Indian Constitution and hence any law comprising the same should be struck down immediately, though sedition is not one of them.

India’s stand on Sedition Laws and is it needed in an ideal society ?

Adjectives are something which can create ruckus and may also topple the most powerful, treacherous or even honest governments of the world. Yes, you read it right. This part of speech is impressionisticand while for someone an ideal society would be one where people could blatantly criticise the government without caring about the limits of healthy criticism and the powers of the government to take actions against them while for others an ideal society would be one where people though criticise the government freely, but know their boundaries while doing so.

Genuinely and legitimately, in an exemplary society, the sedition law is needed. It is not that the citizens of the country fear to express their views freely and without any hindrances just because a law exists which will keep a keen eye on their criticism. If people had been so much cautious of the law systems in the country, there would be no courts functioning now. It is all about the implication of sedition law everywhere around the world. If the law did not exist, not only would the people of the country gallantly censure the actions of the government but also in doing so they would encourage mobs and throngs of people to turn their speeches into violent actions. The law exists not to limit the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution of every great nation but instead it helps to draw the line between what speeches may incite mobs and what only criticise the government in a genuine manner.

The Indian society though would not be still called an ideal society where if not everytime, but sometimes every ruling party uses the sedition laws for its personal agenda and gain.

As per the records of National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB)[2], the cases of sedition in the country have been increasing consistently with 30, 35, 51, 70 and 96 cases of sedition reported in the years 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively by the police under section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (which defines sedition and its punishment). However, only four states namely Assam, Jharkhand, Bihar and Haryana account for over half or 50 per cent of these cases. This fact clearly indicates the disproportionate distribution of sedition cases all over the country. A startling statistic regarding these sedition cases is that only a handful cases result in actual conviction of the accused lowering the conviction rates in the above mentioned cases to figure staggeringly low at less than 1%. That fact clearly states that not all cases of sedition might actually come within the purview of the sedition law. Some of these cases may purely be fuelled by pathetic agendas of any political party or any local politician.

To summarize it in an easy and just manner, an ideal society needs the law of sedition but it also boils down to the applicability and the usage of these laws by the authorities. Though in India, not every sedition case is true to the meaning and the core of Section 124(A) of IPC, still it needs to be enforced by the authorities in a fair and just manner.

Relevant Case laws on Sedition.

The guardian of the Indian Constitution, i.e. The Supreme Court of India, has since time immemorial reviewed a number of the cases on the law of sedition and also provided its valuable input regarding the same.

In the case of Kedar Nath Singh v. State Of Bihar[3], the apex Court not only upheld the constitutional validity of the sedition law in India, but also attempted to restrict its misuse by the government. The Court gave the following seven principles[4] specifying situations where the charges of sedition cannot be levied on the accused-

1. The expression ‘Government established by law’ is distinguished from the people who are in the government. The very existence of the State will be in jeopardy if the Government established by law is subverted.

2.  If the act is done within the meaning of Section !24-A of IPC, it would attract liability since contempt to the government would import the idea of tendency to public disorder by the use of actual violence or incitement to violence

3. However, the comments made without generating feelings of causing public disorder by acts of violence, would not be penal.

4. 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.

5. The provisions of the section only aims at punishing such activities as would be intended or have a tendency, to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence.”

6. The law will step only if someone utters words which have any tendency of creating a public disorder by their meaning or disturbance of law for that matter.

7. The operation of this section would only be applicable if any activity comes within the ambit of causing violence or intention or tendency to create public disorder or cause disturbance of public peace.

In the case of Balwant Singh and Another v. State of Punjab[5], the accused was charged with the offence of sedition since he shouted the slogan of “Khalistan Zindabad” outside a cinema hall, and the event happened after the assassination of the then Prime Minister of India Mrs Indira Gandhi. However, the apex court held in this case that individuals casually shouting slogans could not be specifically termed as sedition and thus their act did not come under the meaning of section 124(A), and so it did not apply to the circumstances of the case.

 In the case of Sanskar Marathe v. State of Maharashtra and another[6],famous cartoonist Mr. Amit Trivedi had been accused of the offence of sedition for putting up a banner mocking the Indian Constitution during rally of Anna Hazare in Mumbai. He also put that banner online on his website. Hence, he was charged under 124A of IPC, Section 66A of Information Technology Act and Section 2 of Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act.

Also in the case of Shreya Singhal v. Union of India[7], though the actual issue before the Supreme Court of India was deciding the powers of the Government where it could restrict the right of free speech and expression of a person when that person comments something offensive about the government, this case also had relevant implications regarding the law of sedition. The court suggested drawing a line between the freedom of speech and violent incited by that speech. The court further ruled that the government can place reasonable restrictions on the fundamental right of speech and expression, but only if that speech has incited or attempted to incited hatred against the government.  

In March 2020, the Supreme Court dismissed a PIL filed against the ex-Chief Minister and the current Member of Parliament from Sri Nagar, Mr. Farooq Abdullah[8]. The division bench consisting of Hon’ble Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Hon’ble Justice Hemnat Gupta remarked, “Expression of views which are different from the opinion of the government cannot be termed as seditious. It cannot become sedition only because one has a different view,”. The court also imposed a fine of Rs. 50,000 on the petitioners namely Mr. Rajat Sharma and Neha Srivastava for what it termed a ‘frivolous’ petition.

The most recent case in limelight regarding sedition is the  case of  Vinod Dua v. Union of India and others[9]. A Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) leader named Mr. Ajay Shyam had filed a case of sedition against the veteran journalist and Padma Shri Awardee Mr. Dua, including other charges like causing public nuisance and making statements conducive to public mischief, when the latter made critical remarks against the current Prime Minister of India Shri Narendra Modi and his ruling party in a YouTube telecast. A Bench led by Justice U.U. Lalit upheld the right of every journalist to criticise, even brutally, the measures of the government with a view to improving or alter them through legal means. The free speech of a journalist should be protected from charges of sedition.

Conclusion

Simply put, Sedition is an offence that criminalizes speech that is regarded to be disloyal to or threatening to the state. There can be both ways of looking into this great yet disputed law of the country.

The country needs the essential law of sedition for a number of reasons. Firstly, it helps to preserve the stability of the government of the country and the national integrity of India. A law marking the criticism of the authority in a violent and ungrateful manner is needed to keep the mobs and unethical people in check. Secondly, the law of sedition provides for punishment of hostile activities. In many parts of the country, we know that rebel groups like the Maoists cause immeasurable nuisance and unbearable loss to the citizens by their draconian insurgencies. Openly supporting the overthrowing of a government is no joke and the sedition helps to keep a lid on these rebellion activities. Thirdly, it is logical that if contempt of court is punishable, then the contempt of the government should also be punishable.

However, the law of sedition has its own flaws and drawbacks which that are needed to be addressed as soon as possible. The sedition law was first added in 1870 by the British so that it could be used as a colonial to suppress the people of the country. Even Mahatma Gandhi described the law of sedition as ‘prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen’. Consequently, some governments use it still to suppress uproar of the people so that the supremacy of the government prevails. It could also be argued that since there also the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA Act), the need of section 124(A) is somewhat not required.

Therefore, in a nutshell, the sedition law may rightly not be ever scrapped ever in the future, it could be tweaked in a way which not only hampers the right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution of India, but also helps the government to keep a check on speeches which incite people and make a peaceful protest violent. The law needs a reform to restrict its application to cases where the words or expressions or anything of that nature of the individuals are extremely hateful and poisonous and pose a great amount of threat to national security and the undaunting integrity of the country.

Sedition, undoubtedly, is a controversial concept and it all comes back to the major point of striking a delicate and meaningful balance the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression, and when does that right is misused to express dissatisfaction with the government in a manner not acceptable by the society. In the constantly changing era, where more and more people are becoming aware of their rights as a citizen, the time may be near when the awful law if not repealed, is reformed in a manner which is suitable to the people of the country and at the same time, not objectionable to the government as well.


[1] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1641007/

[2]https://www.livemint.com/news/india/sedition-cases-in-india-what-data-says-11582557299440.html

[3] 1962 AIR 955, 1962 SCR Supl. (2) 76

[4] https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/vinod-dua-sedition-case-supreme-court-kedar-nath-ruling-explained-7343405/

[5] AIR 1985 SC 1785

[6] 2015 SCC Online Bom 587

[7] (2013) 12 S.C.C. 73

[8]https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/sc-rejects-sedition-plea-against-farooq-abdullah-all-you-need-to-know-101614834515411.html

[9]https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/supreme-court-quashes-sedition-case-against-journalist-vinod-dua/article34713763.ece


Author: Anurag Singh


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