Sedition Laws in India : Intolerance towards Dissent
"It was a satiric drama and whatever was said by that girl in the drama, even if it targeted the Prime Minister or anybody else, cannot be construed as sedition. It does not attract even defamation charges. Pushing two innocent women behind bars is a deliberate and inhuman effort to create fear among people”
Mr. Siddaramaiah, Political Leader
The statements above mentioned are related to the Bidar Sedition Case where the police have slapped sedition charges against the headteacher of the school and the mother of a child, for staging a play against Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (hereinafter referred to as “CAA”) and National Register of Citizens (hereinafter referred to as “NRC”) in a school run by RSS leader Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat. Shocking right? How can the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression be infringed in the name of uttering hate speech, even when the criticism is against the government and not the state?
It is a matter of concern that a large number of sedition cases have been filed against people for protesting against the CAA. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show that 194 cases of sedition have been filed since the CAA was enacted on December 11, 2019. More cases of sedition have been filed since then than in the last three years put together, according to NCRB data. The data also shows that while the number of sedition cases filed has been going up every year in the last four years, only four cases resulted in a conviction. So, how useful is the sedition law?
EVOLUTION OF SEDITION LAWS FROM COLONIAL PERIOD
As Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (hereinafter referred to as “IPC”) will complete its 150 years this year, and continuity of this law is a reminder that there is an ample amount of similarities between the existence of this law in colonial and post-colonial Indian states. The main objective behind this law is to strengthen the relationship between the state and the people but it continuously used to hound the political and social activists to raise serious concerns on how much the relationship has been changed between the Indian states and the Indian people.
The history of sedition law is entwined with the Indian Freedom Movement. After the Revolt of 1857, the ruling powers were passed over to the Britishers, who then started their first-ever attempt to codify the Criminal Law in India. After the recommendations of the First Law Commission presided by Thomas Babington Macaulay, IPC came into force. Originally Section 124A was not a part of IPC 1860. After the Wahhabi movement to overthrow the British rule out of power made the Britishers induct section 124A in Chapter IV of IPC in 1870.
In 1891, The Bangobasi Case came to be known as the first case which went under trial for the offense of sedition. The publisher of the journal published an article questioning the colonial government which was penalized under the sedition law. Many times, in history, the law is misinterpreted and controversies arose over the application of the law. The debate over the sedition law became most evident in a famous sedition trial in India, The case of Bal Gangadhar Tilak who was booked under sedition law thrice which raises a question to maintain the balance between sedition and criticizing the government and finally ends up changing the language of the sedition law.
Post-independence, when India was constructing its designs and its legal structure, two of the most prominent members of the Constituent Assembly, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and C. Rajagopalachari wanted restriction of seditious speech while the others wanted to repeal it. Sedition law continuously used to stifle the voice of freedom fighters and it was natural if someone who suffered from this law calls for its removal.
SEDITION LAWS IN PRESENT TIME
Section 124A defines sedition as an offense committed when "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".
The punishment under this section is severe as sedition is a non-bailable offense and ranges from imprisonment up to three years to a life term in addition to a fine. A person booked under this law is barred from any government job, has to live without their passport, and must produce themselves in court whenever the court seems necessary.
WHY SEDITION LAW HAS LOST ITS MEANING?
Various Indian Courts have many times dominated in opposition to the constitutionality of this law. Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, 1950 (hereinafter referred to as the “Constitution”) ensures freedom of speech and expression. Article 19(2) imposes “reasonable restrictions” on the restrained grounds of interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the protection of the state, friendly relations with overseas states, public order, decency or morality, or concerning contempt of court, defamation, etc.
Currently, Section 124A of the IPC defines sedition and makes every speech or expression that “brings or tries to carry into hatred or contempt, or excites or tries to excite disaffection in the direction of the government mounted by way of regulation in India”, a criminal offense with a most sentence of lifestyles imprisonment. It is classified as a cognizable offense. The illiberal sting in Section 124A is extremely taken away using rationalization to the provision that clarifies that mere “disapprobation of the administrative or different action of the government except thrilling or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do now not represent an offense under this section,” and a long line of judicial decisions, inclusive of the five-judge constitution bench decision of the Supreme Court in Kedarnath v. State of Bihar. The Apex Court in Kedarnath studied down Section 124A to suggest that only these expressions that either intend to or have the tendency of inflicting violence are punishable under Section 124A. The Court reiterated the Kedarnath regulation in 2016 in Common Cause v. Union of India, directing all authorities to scrupulously comply with the Kedarnath dictum. The Supreme Court has, however, not had a threat to reopen the difficulty of the constitutionality of Section 124A.
There have been many other cases which held that fundamental rights in the Constitution are not to be read as isolated silos or as water-tight compartments, but are to be read as if the content of each fundamental right animates the other. There have been a huge number of people who believe that there must be a law that specifically deals with such acts which shows disaffection towards the government. It is also believed that it has its utility in combating anti-national and terrorist elements as many districts face Maoist insurgency and rebel groups. The main motive of these groups is to overthrow the government by their revolution. It is also argued that if contempt of court invites legal punishment then contempt of government should also attract penal actions.
This argument has been countered by stating that, In a democratic country where the constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expressions this colonial section is continuously constraining the legitimate exercise of it. In a vibrant democracy dissent and criticism of the government is necessary and it should not be considered as sedition. The right to question, criticize, and change rulers are very fundamental to the idea of democracy. IPC and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act have provisions that penalize "disrupting the public order" or "overthrowing the government with violence and illegal means". These are sufficient for protecting national integrity. Therefore in my opinion there is no need to have such laws.
As somebody correctly said, the essence of tyranny is in the making of harsh laws and then using those laws selectively against the people. Also, we believe that it is the judiciary only that can scrap this law from the IPC as there will never be a political will to do away with it. Therefore, it just may be that the judiciary will have to re-look its earlier judgments and say that these filters simply do not seem to be working with time. What we had earlier held to be constitutional with safeguards and riders is no longer constitutional. It may just be that if the politicians don’t do it, then one day the judiciary in a Bench larger than five may have to take a fresh look at the sedition law and strike it down altogether. After all, it's high time to get aware of our rights and work to get all the basic freedoms that every human deserves.
1. Prasanna S, Why sedition law has lost meaning, The Indian Express, September 14, 2019, 2:01:06 pm, https://www.google.com/amp/s/indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/why-sedition-law-has-lost-meaning-supreme-court-democracy-5993643/lite/.
2. Ayesha Pattnaik, The art of dissolving dissent: India’s sedition law as an instrument to regulate public opinion, LSE, Oct 4, 2019, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/southasia/2019/10/04/long-read-the-art-of-dissolving-dissent-indias-sedition-law-as-an-instrument-to-regulate-public-opinion/
3. Krishnadas Rajagopal, 'Criticism is not sedition': SC quotes 1962 ruling, THE HINDU, 07 September 2016 00:57 IST, https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.thehindu.com/news/national/Criticism-is-not-sedition-SC-quotes-1962-ruling/article14625056.ece/amp/.
4. Jayant Sriram, Should the sedition law be scrapped?, THE HINDU, Mar 06, 2020, 00:15 IST, https://www.google.com/searchq=sedition+laws+in+present+time+in+india&oq=sedition+laws+in+present+time&aqs=chrome.1.69i57j33.12933j0j4&client=ms-android-samsung-gj-rev1&sourceid=chrome-mobile&ie=
5. Kedarnath Singh v. State of Bihar, 1962 AIR 955.
6. Common Cause v. Union of India, (2016) 15 SCC 269.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This blog has been authored by Rohan Mishra & Samakshi Pandey who are 2nd Year B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) students at Delhi Metropolitan Education, IP University, Delhi and ILS Law College, Pune respectively.
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