Sedition-Law-in-India-IASToppers
Mains Article

Sedition Law in India: Need for its reformation [Mains Article]

The court’s decision on 49 eminent persons warrants an urgent and fresh debate on the need to repeal the sedition law, for it has no place in a vibrant democracy.
By IT's Mains Articles Team
October 10, 2019

Contents

  • Why it was in News?
  • About Sedition Law
  • Famous cases on Sedition
  • Why Sedition law is necessary?
  • Religious Aspect of Section 124A
  • Flaws in Indian Juridical system regarding Sedition
  • Suggestions
  • Conclusion

Sedition Law in India: Need for its reformation

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Why it was in News?

  • A case of sedition has been registered against 49 eminent film writers and directors, who, in July, wrote an open letter to Indian Prime Minister expressing concern over growing incidents of mob lynching and religious identity-based hate crimes, at a police station in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur.

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  • The petition had claimed that the celebrities allegedly tarnished the image of the country and undermined the impressive performance of the prime minister besides supporting secessionist tendencies.
  • The FIR was lodged under several sections of the Indian Penal Code, including those related to sedition, public nuisance, hurting religious feelings and insulting with an intent to provoke breach of peace.
  • The supporters of petition said that Criticising the ruling party does not imply criticising the nation. Hence anti-government stands cannot be equated with anti-national sentiments.
  • According to former chairman of the 20th Law Commission of India A.P. Shah, criticism is not sedition and said that no criminal offence is made out in the letter that sent to PM.

About Sedition Law

  • Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, also popularly known as The Sedition Law, was introduced in the year 1870 by the Britishers. It was originally drafted by Thomas Macaulay. It was not a part of IPC in the 1860s.
  • Section 124A of the IPC states, “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 shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added”.

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  • The law was first used to prosecute Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1897. That case led to Section 124A of the IPC being amended, to add the words ‘hatred’ and ‘contempt’.
  • The law has been notorious for being used against the growing voices of freedom fighters. Mahatma Gandhi was charged under the same law in the year 1922.
  • After independence, the law was retained in the IPC, although further explanations have been added to it.
  • Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India which guarantees the right to free speech and expression absolutely allows for criticism of the government.Given that the word sedition by itself does not appear in Article 19(2), or in the reasonable restrictions provision, the court could uphold 124A only if it was brought within the ambit of “public order”.

Famous cases on Sedition

  • In the Constituent Assembly, some tried to include sedition as a ground for restricting free speech. However, this was opposed for fear that it would be used to crush political dissent.
  • The Supreme Court highlighted the debates of freedom of speech in 1950 in its decisions in Brij Bhushan v the State of Delhi and Romesh Thappar v. the State of Madras. These decisions prompted the First Constitution Amendment, where Article 19(2) was rewritten to replace “undermining the security of the State” with “in the interest of public order”.
  • Jawaharlal Nehru criticized the Sedition law after first amendment.
  • In 1962, in Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of sedition, but limited its application to only ‘acts involving intention or tendency to create disturbance of law or incitement to violence’.
  • In 1995, the Supreme Court, in Balwant Singh v State of Punjab, acquitted persons from charges of sedition for shouting slogans such as “Khalistan Zindabaad” after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. However, the Court held that mere sloganeering which evoked no public response did not amount to sedition.
  • In 1950s, Ram Manohar Lohia, was prosecuted for encouraging citizens not to pay their taxes. The state argued that encouragement to not to pay taxes could result in revolution. However, the court rejected this argument and said that state must establish a proximate or imminent connection between speech and violence, and not merely rely upon hypothetical possibilities.
  • In Shreya Singhal judgment (2013), the supreme court gave clear difference between advocacy and incitement. The court held that three concepts are fundamental to understanding the scope of free speech: Discussion, Advocacy, and Incitement. The freedom of speech can be restricted only when discussion or advocacy reaches the level of incitement.

Why Sedition law is necessary?

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  • A criticism against the law of sedition is that its misuse is rampant and thus must be done away with. However, there exist instances where its use is necessary. The effect of any individual’s seditious activity has serious implications, which is why the offence is categorised in ‘Offences Against the State’ and not in Chapter XIII of the IPC pertaining to ‘Offences Against Public Tranquility’.
  • Moreover, the Supreme Court has repeatedly observed that the mere possibility of misuse of a provision does not invalidate the legislation.
  • Section 124-A protects constructive criticism of government measures made without any attempt to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection towards the government.
  • There are multiple flash points/mob trying to break India and there are a lot of ‘breaking forces’ which are kicking and which are receiving active support from within and outside India.
  • The argument that the Section 124 A is a borrowed from Britishers, cannot be used to eliminate it rather than whether is it relevant at this particular point of time is more important.
  • Section 124 A has been abolished from other countries of world except India is no reason to reject this law without deliberate on what is the relevance of this law in Indian circumstances.
  • The freedom speech and expression which has been guaranteed under article 19 (1) A but at the same time there are limitations counted in article 19 (2) hence Article 19 (1) A and Article 19 (2) should be read altogether.

Religious Aspect of Section 124A

  • One cannot speak anything about any religion because he/she has a right of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. However, India has very soft corner with regards to sedition towards religious sentiment.
  • Considering the issue of Right to freedom of speech, if the existence of the Indian state can be easily questioned, then India should not have any blasphemy (the action or offence of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things) related laws.
  • On the other side, India have Section 295 which penalize for Injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class.
  • Free speech becomes a convenient talking point on sedition laws, however, it takes a backseat the moment it is a question of religious sentiments. In case of religion, freedom of speech is absolute as one cannot spread hatred even amongst the religion communities.
  • However, if there is free speech absolutism, then it must apply to every issue and every entity of India including any Indian state or religious institution, which is not case in India as India has blasphemy related laws.
  • The intensity for invocation of Section 295 A of IPC (Injuring or defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class) for offending religious sentiments is lower than the intensity required to invoke sedition.

Flaws in Indian Juridical system regarding Sedition

  • There are certain faith systems which clearly reject the sanctity of the Vedas and still they’re treated as religions.
  • Hence, Critical analysis of all communities should be allowed as there can never be an academic discussion with respect to faith systems in India at all.
  • If a book is published criticizing a particular faith, then not only there is a right of author but there is right of the reader to study the particular piece of information as well.
  • However, the right of the Academia to think and the right of the public to receive information is lost.
  • If a certain historical aspect of a historical figure is being discussed, if uncomfortable truth regarding that historical figure is found, would that amount to spreading hatred? what is the line that Indian constitution draw between speaking the truth and spreading hatred? These questions need to be addressed.
  • One can genuinely disagree with a certain religion without necessarily being hateful of a certain person and can have right to speak that this particular idea could cause public disharmony although that’s not equivalent to hatred towards religion. This type of distinction unfortunately is missed in India.
  • If there is an allegation against anyone but unless it is proved beyond reasonable doubt Indian judicial system is adverse as one has to prove it by evidence and by procedure.

Suggestions

It might instead be useful to consider at least procedural safeguards and systemic reforms than to repeal the law, that ensure these laws are not misused in a way that makes a joke of fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression.

  • All speech-related offences should be made bailable offences; this would lessen the harmful impact of using arrest and custody as a way of harassing anyone exercising their rights under Article 19(1)(a).
  • The offences should be made non-cognisable, so that there is at least a judicial check on the police acting on the basis of politically-motivated complaints.
  • In the case of offences under Sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, etc.) and 295A of the Indian Penal Code, it is mandatory under Section 196(1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure to obtain prior sanction of the government before taking cognisance of the offences. This needs to be extended to the offence of sedition under Section 124A.
  • In the case of hate speech, it is important to raise the burden of proof on those who claim that their sentiments have been hurt, rather than accept their claim at face value.
  • It is crucial that courts begin to take action against those who bring malicious complaints against speech acts.

Conclusion

  • A century ago, debates around sedition were about how the British abused it. Today, unfortunately, Indians face the same question, except that instead of a foreign government, the country’s own institutions appear to be misusing the law.
  • The need for the Chapter VI of Indian constitution, which has Section 124-A, is underscored by the fact that actions which threaten the security of a government are repelled and its perpetrators punished.
  • The word ‘sedition’ is extremely nuanced, and needs to be applied with caution. It is like a cannon that ought not be used to shoot a mouse; but the arsenal also demands possession of cannons, mostly as a deterrent, and on occasion for shooting.

 

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