India’s sedition law has an interesting past — it was introduced by the British in 1870, and almost dropped from the Constitution in 1948 after discussions of the Constituent Assembly. The word “sedition” disappeared from the Constitution on November 26, 1949 and Article 19 (1)(a) gave absolute freedom of speech and expression. However, Section 124A continued to stay in IPC.
In 1951, Jawaharlal Nehru brought in the first amendment of the Constitution to limit the freedom under Article 19(1)(a) and enacted Article 19(2) to empower the State to put curbs in the form of “reasonable restrictions” on right to free speech. In its judgment in the Kedar Nath case in 1962, a Constitution bench upheld the validity of the sedition law under IPC and also defined the scope of it. It held that Section 124A only penalised words that reveal an intent or tendency to disturb law and order or that seem to incite violence. This definition has been taken as precedent for all matters pertaining to section 124A ever since.
According to the data from the National Crime Records Bureau, uploaded on its website, cases of sedition and under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act showed a rise in 2019, but only 3% of the sedition cases resulted in convictions. A total of 93 cases of sedition were reported in 2019, with 96 arrests and charge sheets filed in 76 cases, as against 70 cases, 56 arrests, and 27 charge sheets the previous year. The ministry of home affairs, in a written reply in February, informed the Rajya Sabha that out of the 96 people arrested for sedition in 2019, only two were convicted for the crime, while 29 were acquitted. Investigations and trials are ongoing in the case of the rest
What’s the case?
The Andhra Government had slapped charges against two Telugu news channels — TV5 and ABN Andhra Jyothi for alleged sedition in showing ‘offensive’ speeches of two leaders.
They said the government’s action is a violation of the earlier SC order (April 30), which restrains the arrest and prosecution against citizens for ventilating grievances with respect to Covid-19 issues.
The court has sought the response of the state government within four weeks on the pleas of the channels which are charged for various offences including the harsh penal offence of sedition.
- It is time we define the limits of sedition.
- Provisions of 124A (sedition) and 153 (promoting enmity between classes) of the IPC require interpretation, particularly on the issue of the rights of press and free speech.
The sedition law has been indiscriminately used against critics, journalists, social media users, activists and citizens for airing their grievances about the governments COVID-19 management, or even for seeking help to gain medical access, equipment, drugs and oxygen cylinders, especially during the second wave of the pandemic.
What is sedition?
Section 124A of the IPC 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 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.”
Need for a proper definition?
The sedition law has been in controversy for far too long. Often the governments are criticized for using the law — Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) — against vocal critics of their policies.
- Therefore, this Section is seen as a restriction of individuals’ freedom of expression and falls short of the provisions of reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech under Article 19 of the Constitution.
The 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.”
Relevant Supreme Court judgements:
- The Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar case (1962):
While dealing with offences under Section 124A of the IPC, a five-judge Supreme Court constitutional bench had, in the Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar case (1962), laid down some guiding principles.
- The court ruled that comments-however strongly worded-expressing disapprobation of the actions of the government without causing public disorder by acts of violence would not be penal.
- The Balwant Singh vs State of Punjab (1995) case:
In this case, the Supreme Court had clarified that merely shouting slogans, in this case Khalistan Zindabad, does not amount to sedition. Evidently, the sedition law is being both misunderstood and misused to muzzle dissent.
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