Sedition involves overt behavior that tends to undermine authority. Seditious acts often include subverting a constitution and instigating discontent among existing authorities. The first sedition laws were passed in the 17th century when Parliamentarians believed that only positive opinions about the government should be allowed, as negative views posed a threat to government and monarchy. Thomas Macaulay, a British historian, and politician drafted the law of sedition in the year 1837, but it was mysteriously omitted from the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 1860. Section 124A was inserted in the year 1870 by an amendment introduced by Sir James Stephen in response to the need for a specific section to deal with the offences committed during the revolt for independence. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Indian nationalists have been involved in some of the most prominent sedition trials. Some of the first prosecutions using sedition law were against editors of nationalist newspapers. One of the most famous sedition trials in 1922 involved Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi described Section 124A as “the prince of all the political provisions of the IPC intended to destroy citizen liberty.”
What is Sedition Law
According to Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, sedition is committed if a person, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, causes hatred toward or discontent towards, the government established by law in India.
The word disaffection refers to feelings of hostility or disloyalty. If the comment does not incite hatred, scorn, or disdain, then it is not an offense under this section.
Under Section 124A, sedition is a non-bailable offence that carries a sentencing range of three years imprisonment, including a fine.
State stability depends on a legally constituted government. The act of subverting the government or creating discontent or enmity towards it would be a violation of Section 124-A of the Penal Code since an enmity or feeling of disrespect for the government would arise from the proclivity to violence as well.
What does not Constitute an Offence under Sedition?
Disapproval of government actions that have the aim of introducing changes by lawful means, without provoking or intending to provoke hatred, contempt, or disapproval, in order to criticize the government constructively with comments would not amount to sedition.
Criticism of administration machinery or government personnel does not qualify as sedition, but when a speaker goes beyond the bounds of legitimate criticism to sow discontent, that speech qualifies as sedition.
In Kedar Nath Singh vs. State of Bihar, the Supreme Court determined the validity of Section 124A as;
Although sedition is legal, its reach is restricted to acts that encourage destabilization, disturbance of public order, or violence. These are distinguished from very forceful speech or the use of phrases that are harshly critical of the government.
In Balwant Singh vs. State of Punjab, it had been ruled that just sloganeering does not constitute a crime under Section 124A unless there is a public disturbance. On the day of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Balwant Singh, the Director of Public Instructions (DPI) in Punjab, Chandigarh, and other cities, was accused of shouting pro-Khalistan slogans.
In its ruling in Brij Bhushan vs. the State of Delhi, the Supreme Court addressed disputes concerning sedition. The court ruled that a law restricting speech in light of the possibility of disrupting public order is illegal. The ruling also observed that disrupting public order is similar to undermining the State’s foundation or threatening its fall. This led to the enactment of the First Constitution Amendment, in which Article 19 (2) was changed to read “in the interest of public order” instead of “undermining the security of the government.”
Is Sedition Law Palatable
The sedition law prohibits anti-national, separatist, and terrorist groups from disrupting the public order, inciting violence, or inciting hatred. With sedition laws, the legitimacy of an elected government can be maintained, which otherwise would be in danger of being deposed through unlawful and violent means.
There exists a symbiotic relationship between sedition laws and contempt of court. The executive branch includes the elected government which is subjected to criticism and condemnation. Thus, the government can be held accountable for its contempt.
Maoist insurgencies have emerged in many parts of the country, and rebel groups essentially run a parallel government. Organizations like these openly advocate revolution to overthrow the state government. Considering this, repealing Section 124A is ill-advised since it has been inadvertently applied in several high-profile cases.
Why Sedition Law is Perilous
Section 124A provides ambiguous words like “disaffection” that open to varied interpretations based on the whims of the investigating officers. Consequently, the provisions of the IPC, 1860 as well as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 2019 prohibit taking part in unlawful activities or overthrowing the government through violence. These statutes are competent enough to serve the needs of national security thus making Sedition laws redundant.
Dissent and criticism of the government are essential elements of a functioning democracy. The government should not interpret them as sedition. It is central to the democratic concept to be able to question, criticize, and replace authority if found inept. Politicians are abusing the legislation against sedition for repression of opposition. Despite the fact that it has a broad and focused executive discretion built-in, flagrant misuse to satisfy one’s caprice is possible.
Sedition lawsuits were filed 93 times in 2019 compared with 35 times in 2016. The increase is approximately 165 percent. Reports were filed in only 17 percent of the 93 cases, and the conviction rate was low at 3.3 percent. According to National Crime Records Bureau, 21 cases of sedition were closed due to lack of evidence, two were closed due to being false cases, and six were closed as civil disputes.
Some instances are were;
Disha Ravi, a climate activist, was arrested by Delhi Police on February 13, 2020, and later released after being granted bail in connection with the protests against three new agricultural laws that were announced by the Centre at that time. The court ruled that being the editor of a harmless Toolkit or starting a WhatsApp group is not illegal.
The Delhi Police filed a sedition charge against farmers on Republic Day for violence at the Red Fort during a tractor procession. The complaint was filed under section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). A large number of protestors marched to ITO from Ghazipur on Republic Day, clashing with police. They had arrived at the Red Fort on tractors and were driving into the monument as a means of protest against the farm laws.
After the Editors Guild of India and a major former General filed petitions challenging section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code, a bench led by Chief Justice N V Ramana addressed the Centre on the grounds of “misuse of the law” citing the sedition laws.
N.V. Ramana, Chief Justice of India, in an unusual statement, questioned why a colonial statute used against Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak remains in the law book 75 years after independence. Considering the outrage growing over the use of the sedition law by the federal and state government to suppress dissent, muzzle free expression, and deny bail to activists, journalists, students, and members of civil society, the CJI’s oral statement in open court is significant questioning the constitutionality of the sedition law. In its decision, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a new petition filed by a former army commander challenging the constitutional legitimacy of the sedition laws, which he claims has a chilling effect on free speech and is an unjustified limit on that right.
India’s adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in the year 1979 should be viewed as a positive step forward in recognizing freedom of expression. Therefore, with the Sedition Legislation in effect, there is a possibility that the law may be misapplied, resulting in individuals being charged with criminal liability for expressing their views.
Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of India’s democracy, which is often celebrated as the largest democracy in the world. Thus, a person expressing or thinking something that contradicts the current policies of a government should not be considered sedition. India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity should be the only concerns that constitute sedition law.
Substantially, freedom of expression shouldn’t be curbed by the provisions of section 124A. A decision must be scrutinized in light of changing facts and circumstances, as well as considering ever-changing criteria of necessity, proportionality, and arbitrariness of both the ruling machinery and the dissent expressed by the public.
This article is authored by Aathira Pillai, a 5th year BLS LLB student of Dr. D. Y. Patil College of Law.
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