Anatomy of the scandalous sedition law in India

History has recorded that liberty without restriction has led to abuse. Will the law related to sedition also take successful refuge under the doctrine of reasonable restrictions on fundamental rights in the coming days?

The judge further pulled up the ACB for turning into a "collection centre" and a "centre of corruption."

By — Satya Muley

The recent order by the Supreme Court of India to stay the application of sedition law till a re-assessment is done by the government has made Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code talk of the town. This may also help to investigate the rationale behind the increased use of sedition law in recent times.

The word “sedition” originated from the Old French word “sedicioun” which means “fictitious commotion in the state, rebellion, violent strife between fractions, uprising revolt of civil or criminal disorder.” The sedition law was originally introduced during the colonial period to curb the activities of the freedom struggle in India. The law first came into the picture in 1860 and was amended in 1898 to suit the British rule over India. Freedom fighters like Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi were also tried for sedition charges. The trial of Lokmanya Tilak became notable as he was charged three times for sedition in his lifetime. 

What is Sedition?

Sedition is defined in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code as: “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, shall be punished with  imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”

The expression “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity. Comments expressing disapprobation of the measures of the government to obtain their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt, or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this law. 

Similarly, comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under the law related to sedition.

A Controversial Law

The first challenge to Section 124A was in the case of Ram Nandan vs State of Uttar Pradesh in 1959, in which the Allahabad High Court held the law to be unconstitutional. It was opined that Section 124A is in derogation of Article 19(1) and Article 19(2) of the constitution of India as it imposes restrictions on freedom of speech, which is not in the interest of Indians. 

The landmark judgment in Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar in 1962 overturned the earlier judgements regarding sedition and held the law to be constitutional. The judgment highlighted the aspect of the right use of the law and underlined that constructive criticism of the government is not seditious in nature. The court held the sedition law to be consistent with Article 19(1) and Article 19(2) of the Constitution.

The Constitutional validity of colonial law and the need for such a law has been challenged by the judiciary from time to time. As in recent times, the use of sedition law has been increased and the question of the need for such a law in a free and democratic country is being raised. The states like Assam and Jharkhand account for one-third of total registered cases of sedition. Owing to the use or misuse of the sedition law against persons who criticised government actions, the recent challenge to the law has reached the doorstep of the Supreme Court of India.

Recently in the case of S.G. Vombatkere Versus Union of India, the Supreme Court made an order on May 31, 2022 to stay the application of sedition law till further orders. The government is directed not to register any new FIR involving sedition charges and to suspend the investigation in existing cases. If a new case of sedition is registered against any citizen, they can approach the court to seek relief under the order dated May 31, 2022. The rights of the State and the citizens are to be balanced.

Though different jurists have different opinions about Section 124A of IPC, the recent order will provide relief to the people against whom the charges are invoked, and they can finally be granted bail. For some, it can be interpreted as the enhancement of the freedom of speech and expression under the constitution. But in the end, everyone is focused on the re-assessment which is to be done by the government. Because the law is finally struck down it will promote free speech in India and will also be a landmark as it will overturn everything that was held in the Kedarnath case.

Having said the above, history has recorded that liberty without restriction has led to abuse. Will the law related to sedition also take successful refuge under the doctrine of reasonable restrictions on fundamental rights in the coming days? Although any state is expected to further the interests of its citizens, it also must not let the state itself disintegrate, which may be against the interest of the same citizens. 

After all, it is upon the state to combat anti-national activities and without being appropriately armed with relevant laws, a wrongly directed liberal mentality may be counterproductive. 

Conclusion

Any activity to evaluate the validity or necessity of a law is a fruitful one as it brings to the forefront various opinions and refines the national understanding of the subject. Whatever is the outcome, such challenges only demonstrate that India is a thriving democracy and there is enough freedom available to its citizens. Indian State and the Judiciary are better off dealing with such subjects as compared to dealing with disputes originating from religious subjects.

Without a law related to sedition, how will the Indian State counter the dangerous anti-national mischief is the question that will have to be answered before the law related to sedition is finally and fully struck off. 

(The author is a practising lawyer in Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court and founder of the legal firm Satya Muley & Co. The views expressed are the author’s own.) 

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