In a substantial blow in favour of free speech, the Supreme Court has effectively suspended the operation of the sedition provision in the country’s penal law. “All pending trials, appeals and proceedings with respect to the charge framed under Section 124A be kept in abeyance”, it has said in an order that will bring some welcome relief to those calling for the abrogation of Section 124A of the IPC, which criminalises any speech, writing or representation that “excites disaffection against the government”. The Court has recorded its hope and expectation that governments at the Centre and the States will refrain from registering any fresh case of sedition under Section 124A of the IPC, or continuing with any investigation or taking any coercive measure under it. The hope and the expectation arise from the Union government’s own submission that it has decided to re-examine and reconsider the provision as part of the Prime Minister’s efforts to scrap outdated laws and compliance burdens. Perhaps, realising that its order may not be enough to deter thin-skinned and vindictive governments and politically pliant police officers from invoking it against detractors and dissenters, the Court has given liberty to the people to approach the jurisdiction courts if any fresh case is registered for sedition and cite in their support the present order, as well as the Union government’s stand.
That the sedition law is being persistently misused has been recognised years ago, and courts have pointed out that the police authorities are not heeding the limitation imposed by a 1962 Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on what constitutes sedition. The Court had upheld the section only by reading it down to mean that it is applicable only to “acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder, or disturbance of law and order, or incitement to violence”. In practice, the police have been using the broad definition of sedition to book anyone who criticised the Government in strong and strident language. The question now before the Court is whether it ought to overrule a decision rendered by a five-judge Bench 60 years ago. If it chooses to do so, and strikes down Section 124A as an unconstitutional restriction on free speech, it may help the larger cause of preventing misuse of provisions relating to speech-based offences. However, the Government may choose to prevent such a situation by amending it so that the offence is narrowly defined to cover only acts that affect the sovereignty, integrity and security of the state, as reportedly recommended by a panel of experts. When the Government submitted that it was revisiting the provision on its own, it was expecting only an indefinite postponement of the hearing on the constitutional validity of Section 124A, but it must now heed the spirit of the order and take effective steps to prevent its misuse.