Law Minister Kiren Rijiju’s reply in Parliament that there is no proposal to scrap sedition from the penal code comes almost five months after Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana made scathing remarks in open court to the Government about the chilling effect of the “colonial law” which suppresses the freedoms of ordinary people.
In a hearing on July 15, the CJI compared the use of sedition (Section 124A of the IPC) to a tool given to a carpenter “to cut a piece of wood and he uses it to cut the entire forest itself”.
The CJI had wondered why a democracy needed a law which was used by the British to imprison Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
No proposal to scrap Section 124A
“The Ministry of Home Affairs has informed that there is no proposal under consideration to scrap Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Further, the question of law regarding Section 124A is pending for adjudication before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India,” Mr. Rijiju said in a written reply in the Lok Sabha.
Mr. Rijiju said observations that sedition was a “colonial law” misused by the Government were not part of any judgment or order of the court.
However, the Government, on July 15, through its topmost law officer, Attorney General K.K. Venugopal, had responded to the CJI’s oral observations in court, saying there was no need to strike down Section 124A. “It is enough to see if there were any excesses in its use and limit the Section to its real purpose… That would be enough,” Mr. Venugopal had responded.
The CJI’s observations in court make it apparent that the highest court has taken judicial notice of the misuse of the sedition provision by the State. The observations were made by the CJI during the proceedings of the court. Oral observations made during a court hearing, though not part of a formal order or judgment, reflect the constitutional court’s line of thinking. It shows application of the judicial mind, and in this case, of the topmost judge of the country. Besides, the 2015 judgment of the Supreme Court in the Shreya Singhal case had called for the striking down of vague laws which choke free speech and shackle personal liberty.
Former Union Minister P. Chidambaram, in his tweets, has pointed out that the court’s comments were reported in the media. Mr. Rijiju had retorted that media reports do not form part of official records.
However, the court has already sought a formal response from the Government by issuing notice on a petition filed by retired General S.G. Vombatkere to quash Section 124A. It has also issued notice to the Government on a writ petition filed jointly by the Editors Guild of India and cartoonist Aseem Trivedi.
Two other petitions filed by Kishore Chandra Wangkemcha and M/s Aamoda Broadcasting Company Private Limited, the latter against the Andhra Pradesh Government, are pending before the apex court. Both cases concern sedition charges.
A Bench led by Justice U.U. Lalit had issued notice in the Wangkemcha case. The Aamoda petition is before a Bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud. A petition by senior journalist Arun Shourie and NGO Common Cause, both represented by advocate Prashant Bhushan, has argued that Section 124A does not even possess a “presumption of constitutionality”.
The CJI’s Bench said all these petitions posed “similar questions of law”. The very fact that the court wants an answer from the Government shows that it senses a problem worthy of judicial intervention. The CJI’s oral remarks in July have also opened the floor for debate and introspection on the court’s own judgment in 1962, in the Kedar Nath case, which upheld Section 124A.
The CJI had asked the Government why it did not throw out sedition law along with the hundreds of “stale laws” it had expunged from the statute books.
“If you look at the history of use of this Section 124A of IPC, you will find that the conviction rate is very low. There is misuse of power by executive agencies… Your Government is taking out a lot of stale laws from the law books, why have they not looked into this?” the Chief Justice had asked.
The Law Minister’s response that there is “no proposal” to scrap the sedition law follows the CJI’s remarks about its “sweeping powers”, admission of multiple writ petitions challenging it and the rising public denouncement of Central and State law enforcement agencies using the law to silence dissent, muffle free expression and for denying bail to incarcerated activists, journalists, students and civil society members.
“People are scared. Our concern is misuse of the law and the lack of accountability. Why has it continued in the statute book even after 75 years of our Independence?” Chief Justice Ramana had asked the Government in July.