BY- HIMADRI BADONI
The Supreme Court’s agreement to review the constitutionality of Section 124A of India’s Criminal Code (IPC), the anti-sedition law, gives hope that the relic of colonial times will be destroyed.
Background of the law
This sedition law dates back to the 17th century, where it was initially drafted by Thomas Macaulay and the Section 124A of IPC was inserted through an amendment in 1870 when the colonial era government felt the need to curb dissent. The commission of the offense of sedition has been defined as: “any person 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”. Section 124A of IPC makes sedition a non-bailable offense and has set the punishment as imprisonment of three which may be extended to a lifetime along with the addition of a fine. People charged with sedition are required to without their passports and be present before the court whenever called.
It has been argued in a petition filed by the two journalists who hail from Manipur and Chhattisgarh respectively, that the sedition law is violative of the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19. Both the journalists have been charged with sedition for their respective social media posts containing the government’s criticism, in their respective states. Limiting the scope of the law did not really work. The apex court had affirmed the constitutionality of the law in 1962 (Kedar Nath Singh v. Bihar & Ors State) by saying that Article 19 (2), which imposed “reasonable restrictions on freedom of expression”, protects the law from the “vice of unconstitutionality”.
However, it limited the application of the sedition law to “acts that imply an intention or tendency to cause disorder, change in public order, or incite violence.” Protecting dissent, the apex court had remarked that strongly worded comments expressing disapproval of the government’s action that do not cause an emotional whirlpool of feelings inciting violence or disorder amongst the public, cannot be labeled as seditious.
Even after this sensible clarification by the apex court, the application of this law has more often been with an intent to curb dissent which is a complete reflection of the mindset of the colonial times. Indiscriminate application of the law is perhaps why the prosecution does not appear to be frequent either. According to the National Office for Criminal Records, 96 people were arrested for sedition in 2019, and 76 were officially charged with which 29 acquitted and only 2 were convicted. It is likely that there are cases pending against the rest, but the success rate in closed trials really shows the efficiency of the state in investigating and prosecuting.
While most political parties have spoken of the need to repeal the law, or at least pushed for it to be enforced under a very limited mandate of applicability, they have used it to silence people for acts that do not classify as seditious whether it is the sharing of a political cartoon or for that matter even a routine protest-toolkit. The judiciary has tried to dominate the application of the law by governments (both states and the center). Indeed, in the Disha Ravi case, the court said that citizens “cannot be put behind bars simply because they choose not to agree to state policies. The crime of sedition cannot be invoked to serve the wounded vanity of governments. “However, on the question of the repeal of the law, the Centre continues without committing itself. Repeatedly in responses to Parliament’s questions on the repeal of the law, a cryptic “criminal law amendment is an ongoing process” was maintained after July 2019, when it was clearly stated that there was no proposal to repeal the law.
There is surely a need for an instrument of law to keep a check on the actions endangering our nation’s stability and security, but the sedition law which seems to be no less than a blunt instrument is definitely not the need of the hour. Even the UK, which drafted India’s sedition law as a colonizer, appears to have recognized this and put down its own sedition law in 2009.