Sedition is once again the subject of debate as the Supreme Court Court is hearing pleas challenging it. The pleas filed by the Editors Guild of India and Major General (Retired) S.G. Vombatkere state that the law causes a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech and is an unreasonable restriction on free expression, a fundamental right.
The apex court had first issued a notice to the Centre in July 2021 about the challenge to the legality of Section 124A Indian Penal Code (IPC), which criminalises sedition. Later, on April 27, 2022, Supreme Court fixed May 5 for the final hearing of the petitions, stating that it will not brook any delay in the form of requests for adjournment. On May 2, the Centre stated that its draft reply is ready but is awaiting approval from ‘Competent Authority’.
As sedition comes under fire in the Supreme Court, here is a brief look at the law, punishment for it and its usage by governments.
What is sedition law?
Drafted by British historian-politician Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1837, sedition was defined as an act by ‘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 India’.
The Sedition charge, which was included in Section 124 A of the Indian penal code in 1870, was imposed by the British Colonial government to primarily suppress the writings and speeches of prominent Indian freedom fighters. Writings of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Lokmanya Tilak, and Jogendra Chandra Bose were suppressed and they were tried under sedition law for their comments on the British rule.
As per section 124A, sedition is a non-bailable offence, punishable with imprisonment from three years up to life, along with a fine. The person charged under this law is also barred from a government job and their passport is seized by the government. Incidentally, the sedition charge was abolished by the United Kingdom in 2010.
What does the Law Commission say on sedition?
According to Law Commission of India’s 2018 report, while framing the Constitution, the Constituent Assembly had opposed inclusion of sedition as a restriction on freedom of speech and expression under the then-Article 13. It saw the provision as a shadow of colonial times that should not see light of the day in free India. However, the offence remained under section 124A of the IPC.
The report concludes, “In a democracy, singing from the same songbook is not a benchmark of patriotism. People should be at liberty to show their affection towards their country in their own way. For doing the same, one might indulge in constructive criticism or debates, pointing out the loopholes in the policy of the Government. Expressions used in such thoughts might be harsh and unpleasant to some, but that does not render the actions to be branded seditious”. It opined that section 124A should be invoked only in cases where the intention behind any act is to disrupt public order or to overthrow the government with violence and illegal means.
The Commission suggests that section 124A of IPC (sedition) must remain; however, it should be scrutinised whether the word ‘sedition’ could be substituted suitably with another. Moreover, whether ‘right to offend‘ qualified as hate speech must also be scrutinised, says the report. It also urges striking a balance between sedition and the right to freedom of speech, and installing safeguards against misuse of the sedition charge.
What has happened in Parliament?
In 2011, CPI MP D Raja introduced a private member Bill in Rajya Sabha proposing that section 124A IPC should be omitted, but failed to pass. In 2015, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor introduced a private member Bill in Lok Sabha to amend section 124A of IPC to term only those actions/words that directly result in the use of violence or incitement to violence as ‘seditious’.
What is the Supreme Court’s stance on it?
In July 2021, Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana observed, “Sedition is a colonial law. It suppresses freedoms. It was used against Mahatma Gandhi, Tilak... Is this law necessary after 75 years of Independence?” He said this addressing Attorney General K.K. Venugopal and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre.
He added, “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.”
However, in the 1962 Kedar Nath case the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of section 124A of IPC.
The 1962 order stated, “Continued existence of the Government established by law is an essential condition of the stability of the State. That is why ‘sedition’, comes under Chapter VI relating to offences against the State. Hence any acts within the meaning of Section 124-A which have the effect of subverting the Government by bringing that Government into contempt or hatred, or creating disaffection against it, would be within the penal statute.”
Sedition cases in the country
As per the 2020 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, in 2018, 70 sedition cases were filed; however, not a single person was convicted. Similarly, in 2019, 93 cases were filed, while only two were convicted. Similarly in 2020, 73 cases were filed and no one was convicted of sedition.
Manipur filed the highest number of sedition cases (15) in 2020, followed by Assam (12), Karnataka (9), Uttar Pradesh (7), Haryana (6) and Delhi (5).
Here are some recent notable cases of the sedition charge being invoked:
- Against environmental activist Disha Ravi, for sharing a ‘toolkit’ for a global online campaign supporting the farmers’ protest
- Against activists Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Gulfisha Khatoon, Ishrat Jahan, Safoora Zargar and Meeran Haider, for alleged inflammatory remarks at anti-CAA meetings and ‘premeditated conspiracy’ to create riots in Delhi in February 2020.
- Against journalist Siddique Kapan, for proceeding towards Hathras, where a 19-year-old Dalit woman was gangraped and alleged links with Popular Front of India (PFI).
- Activists Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Hany Babu, Anand Teltumbde, Shoma Sen, Gautam Navlakha, Surendra Gadling, late Father Stan Swamy, Arun Ferreira, Rona Wilson, Mahesh Raut and Sudhir Dhawale, for speeches at an Elgaar Parishad meeting ahead of the violence in Bhima Koregaon on the occasion of the bicentennial anniversary of the 1818 battle.