Sedition Law A Controversial Red Line
Sedition Law A Controversial Red Line. In 1870, when the otherwise submissive Indians, had started raising their voices in large numbers against the atrocities of the Colonial Government, the latter felt a need to introduce a new penal offence to suppress those voices. Hence, Section 124-A, dealing with the law of sedition was adopted in the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The law was drafted by Thomas Macaulay, however, it was not included in the original IPC.
Section 124A defines the offence of ‘sedition’ 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’. VODAFONE TAX DISPUTE
According to Explanation 1, the expression “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.
Further, explanations 2 & 3 specifically talk about comments which do not constitute an offence of sedition under this section:
- Comments expressing disapprobation of the measures of the Government with a view to obtaining their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection.
- 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 this section.
The language of Section 124-A is too wide. It gives unbridled powers to the Government to charge anyone with sedition. As a result, this section was frequently invoked by the British to send many great Indian freedom fighters, like Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak behind bars during the freedom struggle. But even the British did not misuse this provision as much as our democratic, free Indian Governments have in 68 years after independence, be it the arrest of Vice-resident of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Binayak Sen for possessing Naxal literature or more recently, Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi or that of JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar who was accused of raising anti-India slogans.
Many leaders have opposed its presence in the penal code. Jawaharlal Nehru went to the extent of calling it fundamentally unconstitutional and highly objectionable and obnoxious. Maybe he had foreseen the potential dangers of such an antiquated and draconian provision in the code. From time to time, Indian courts have been making efforts to explain the scope of the law of sedition. The Privy Council in Queen Empress v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1897) explained the law on sedition as given under Section 124A in the IPC in the following terms;
“The offence consists of exciting or attempting to excite in others certain bad feelings towards the government. It is not exciting or attempting to excite mutiny or rebellion or any sort of actual disturbance, great or small. Whether any disturbance or outbreak was caused by these articles is absolutely immaterial.”
In 1942, the Federal Court gave a diametrically opposite view in Niharendu Dutt Majumdar v. King-Emperor by holding that if there is no incitement to violence, there is no sedition. In 1962, for the very first time, the Constitution bench of the Supreme Court explained the scope of sedition as a penal offence in the case of Kedarnath v. State of Bihar (1962). The court followed the Federal Court and held that the gist of the offence of sedition is “incitement to violence” or the “tendency or the intention to create public disorder”.
Though the Supreme Court adopted a strict construction of Section 124-A, the Central and State Governments have excessively deployed this weapon to crush free speech and expression. They follow the law propounded by the Privy Council, ignoring the one laid down by the Supreme Court in Kedarnath.
The Apex court and various High Courts have recognized the importance of free speech and mostly, took views favouring this cherished fundamental right. More recently, in 2015, the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, by ruling that speech howsoever offensive, annoying or inconvenient cannot be prosecuted unless its utterance has, at the least, a proximate connection with any incitement to disrupt public order. The same should hold true for Section 124-A IPC.
Right to dissent is the very essence of democracy and Section 124-A is the antithesis of it. Only those words which directly provoke violence or which directly threaten the maintenance of public order deserve censure. Each and every act or speech which is not in conformity with the ideas of the ruling Government should not be viewed as anti-national or seditious after all the term ‘nationalism’ is a relative concept and may hold different connotations to different persons. No one has the right to decide what is ‘national’ or ‘anti-national’, not even the government.
Section 124-A of IPC in its present form is draconian and antiquated. It is against the very ideals of democracy and must, therefore, be reviewed. In its present form, it is dangerous and likely to produce more inflammatory situations in future similar to the one which recently occurred at JNU.