While there is a need to be vigilant and act against those endangering the nation’s security and stability, a blunt instrument like the sedition law isn’t the answer
The Supreme Court agreeing to examine the constitutionality of the Indian Penal Code’s (IPC’s) Section 124A—the law against sedition—offers hope that the relic of the colonial era will be struck down. Two journalists, from Manipur and Chhattisgarh, have contended in a petition that the law violates Article 19 that guarantees freedom of speech and expression; both journalists are facing sedition charges in their respective states, for social-media posts criticising the government.
Diminishing the scope of the law hasn’t really worked. The SC, in 1962 (Kedar Nath Singh vs state of Bihar & ors), had upheld the constitutionality of the law saying Article 19(2) that imposes “reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech” protected the sedition law from the “vice of unconstitutionality”. It nevertheless circumscribed the application of the law to “acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder, or disturbance of law and order, or incitement to violence.” It even specifically narrowed down its scope in order to protect dissent, saying, “comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of actions of the Government, without exciting those feelings which generate the inclination to cause public disorder by acts of violence” wasn’t sedition. Yet, the application of the law has been, more often than not, atavistic—reflecting the colonial-era mindset to control political expression and curb dissent.
The indiscriminate application of the law is perhaps why charges also don’t seem to stick often. As per the National Crime Records Bureau, while 96 persons were arrested for sedition in 2019, 76 were charge-sheeted; only 2 were convicted and 29 acquitted. Cases are likely pending against the rest, but the success rate in the concluded trials really shows up the State’s efficiency in investigation and prosecution. While most political parties have talked about the need to scrap the law, or have at least urged that it be invoked under a very narrow remit of applicability, they have used it to silence people for acts that can’t be termed seditious, whether it is sharing of a political cartoon or even sharing a routine protest-toolkit.
The judiciary has tried to tame the governments’ (both states and the Centre) trigger-happy application of the law—indeed, in the Disha Ravi matter, the court said that citizens “cannot be put behind the bars simply because they choose to disagree with the state policies. The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments”.
But, on the question of scrapping the law, the Centre remains non-committal; in replies to Parliament questions on the scrapping of the law, it has repeatedly maintained a cryptic “amendment of criminal laws is a continuous process” after July 2019, when it had clearly said there was no proposal to scrap the law. Juxtapose this with the Union home minister’s talk of the need to overhaul the IPC to rid it of its “master and servant” spirit, given it was meant to “maintain the stability of the British empire”. While there is a need to be vigilant and act against those endangering the nation’s security and stability, a blunt instrument like the sedition law isn’t the answer—even the UK, which scripted India’s sedition law as its coloniser, seems to have realised this, scrapping its own sedition law in 2009.