The Supreme Court on Tuesday indicated a willingness to wait, but not for too long, for the government to “re-examine” the colonial law of sedition.
However, the court wants the government to respond within the next 24 hours on how it intends to protect the interests of people already arrested and facing prosecution under Section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code. The court further sought the government’s response on whether the use of the British-era law could be suspended in view of the reconsideration process.
“We will definitely take into consideration that you are doing a serious exercise of reconsideration of the law. We should not appear unreasonable… But there are concerns. One is about cases which are already pending. The other is the future misuse of Section 124A during the reconsideration. The Attorney-General has himself said there is abuse… How are you going to protect the interests of the people from this abuse while the reconsideration exercise is on,” Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana asked Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre.
At one point, the court said the reconsideration process could not be an open-ended one. “How long will you take for the ‘reconsideration’ of the law,” Chief Justice Ramana asked.
But Mr. Mehta was non-committal. “I may not be able to say. The process has started,” the law officer said. He urged the court to trust the earnest tone and spirit of the government’s affidavit which promised the re-examination of the law. “There is a serious application of mind,” the Solicitor-General assured the court.
“We will decide the question of how much time should be given,” Chief Justice Ramana said.
On the issue of protecting people from the misuse of sedition law, Mr. Mehta said those affected could always move the constitutional courts of the land.
“These cases are booked by the State governments. The Centre does not do it. The aim of Section 124A is to protect the sovereignty and integrity of the nation… Whenever there is misuse, there are the constitutional courts and remedies,” Mr. Mehta submitted.
“Meanwhile, they will be in jail for months,” Chief Justice Ramana retorted, “we cannot ask each and every individual booked for sedition to go to court… That cannot be the case now when the government has itself shown concern about the misuse of civil liberties… Tell us whether people can be protected from abuse while reconsideration is on”.
Mr. Mehta said it would be hazardous to completely stop the operation of a penal provision. That had never been done in the history of the nation.
“Till this exercise is over, people can approach the courts, which will consider each case on the basis of their individual facts and deliver justice… Courts can stay cases which are not even remotely seditious… High Courts are already seized of pending cases of sedition,” the law officer replied.
Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli, on the Bench, asked whether the Centre could issue a directive to the States to keep the law in abeyance pending reconsideration.
“The people operating Section 124A at the ground level are local police and civil authorities… You [Centre] have to tell them that sedition is being revisited and use of Section 124A should be suspended in the meantime,” Justice Kant addressed the Centre.
‘Don’t stop hearings’
Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, C.U. Singh and Gopal Sankaranarayanan, for the petitioners, urged not to defer the sedition hearings on the government’s word.
“It is the privilege of the legislature to reconsider or frame a new law. Let them take six months or a year and do it. But it is Your Lordships’ duty to deal with our challenge against the present law… Just because they want to reconsider does not mean the court has to stop hearing the case,” Mr. Sibal argued.
He argued that even if a new law was brought in, the present cases would still be tried under Section 124A.
“We are not deciding the case, we are only keeping everything pending,” Justice Kant reasoned.
“But people are getting arrested for sedition on a daily basis,” Mr. Sibal reacted.