Sedition Law

News: The CJI is now convinced that sedition law (IPC 124A) is being misused by the authorities to trample upon citizens’ fundamental rights of free speech and liberty.

Section 124A of the IPC:

  • The section deals with the offence of sedition, a term that covers speech or writing, or any form of visible representation, which brings the government into hatred or contempt, or excites disaffection towards the government, or attempts to do so.
  • It is punishable with three years in prison or a life term.
  • “Disaffection”, it says, includes disloyalty and feelings of enmity.
  • However, it also says expressing disapproval of government measures or actions, with a view to getting them changed by lawful means, without promoting hatred or disaffection or contempt towards the government will not come under this section.

Background

  • Sedition was introduced in the penal code in 1870, a decade after the Indian Penal Code came into force.
  • It was a colonial law directed against strong criticism of the British administration.
  • Its most famous victims included Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi.
  • Gandhi called it “the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”.

Constitutionality

  • Two high courts had found it unconstitutional after Independence, as it violated the freedom of speech and expression.
  • The Constitution was amended to include ‘public order’ as one of the ‘reasonable restrictions’ on which free speech could be abridged by law.
  • Thereafter, the Supreme Court, in Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar (1962) upheld its validity.
  • At the same time, it limited its application to acts that involve “intention or tendency to create disorder” or incitement to violence.
  • Thus, even strongly worded remarks, as long as they do not excite disloyalty and enmity, or incite violence, are not an offence under this section.

Present controversy:

  • In recent times, the resort to this section is seen as disturbingly frequent.
  • Activists, cartoonists and intellectuals have been arrested under this section, drawing criticism from liberals that it is being used to suppress dissent and silence critics.
  • Authorities and the police who invoke this section defend the measure as a necessary step to prevent public disorder and anti-national activities.
  • Many of them have also been detained under the National Security Act and UAPA.
  • Liberals and rights activists have been demanding the scrapping of Section 124A. It is argued that the provision is “overbroad”, i.e., it defines the offence in wide terms threatening the liberty of citizens.
  • The Law Commission has also called for a reconsideration of the section.
  • It has pointed that Britain abolished it more than a decade ago and raised the question of whether a provision introduced by the British to put down the freedom struggle should continue to be law in India.
  • Some argue that a presumption of constitutionality does not apply to pre-constitutional laws as those laws have been made by foreign legislature or bodies.

SC’s Observations:

  • Justice D.Y. Chandrachud had flagged the indiscriminate use of the sedition law against people who aired their grievances about the government’s COVID management.
  • People have been charged even for seeking help to gain medical access, equipment, drugs and oxygen cylinders, especially during the second wave of the pandemic.
  • Justice U.U. Lalit, in his recent judgment, quashed a sedition case against a person for his alleged remarks about the PM and the Union Government.