Section 124-A – Sedition Law

Context :

  • Recently FIR was registered in Bihar’s Muzzaffarpur district against 49 persons, including Ramachandra Guha, Mani Ratnam and Aparna Sen, who wrote an open letter to Modi raising concerns over the growing incidents of mob lynching.

What is sedition?

  • Under Section 124A of the IPC, the offence of sedition is committed when any person by words or otherwise brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the government established by law.
  • Three explanations added to the provision lay down that while “disaffection” shall include disloyalty and all feelings of enmity, comments without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, will not constitute an offence.

Punishment for the offence of sedition

  • Sedition is a cognisable, non-bailable and non-compoundable offence under the law, entailing life imprisonment as maximum punishment, with or without a fine.
  • A person charged under this law is barred from a government job. They have to live without their passport and must produce themselves in the court at all times as and when required.
  • Sedition was not a part of the original IPC that was enacted in 1860 — it was introduced in 1870, when it was said it had been dropped from the original IPC draft by mistake.

Origin of sedition law in modern India

  • The law was originally drafted in 1837 by Thomas Macaulay, the British historian-politician, but was inexplicably omitted when the IPC was enacted in 1860.
  • Section 124A was inserted in 1870 by an amendment introduced by Sir James Stephen when it felt the need for a specific section to deal with the offence. It was one of the many draconian laws enacted to stifle any voices of dissent at that time.

Famous Sedition Trials during Independence movement

  • It came in handy to muzzle nationalist voices and demands for freedom — the long list of India’s national heroes who figured as accused in cases of sedition includes Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and Jawaharlal Nehru.
  • Tilak was sentenced to six years in jail after he was held guilty of sedition by the Privy Council for writing a piece in his newspaper, Kesari, under the heading “The misfortune of the country”.

Constitutional validity?

  • The constitutionality of sedition was challenged in the Supreme Court in Kedar Nath Vs State of Bihar (1962).
  • The Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court ruled in the Kedar Nath case that any act that had the “effect of subverting the Government” by violent means or create public disorder would come within the definition of sedition.
  • The court ruled that disapproval of the measures of government with a view to their improvement or alteration by lawful means is not sedition. It held that “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” would not attract the penal offence.
  • Commenting in strong terms upon the measures or acts of Government, or its agencies, so as to ameliorate the condition of the people or to secure the cancellation or alteration of those acts or measures by lawful means, that is to say, without exciting those feelings of enmity and disloyalty which imply excitement to public disorder or the use of violence”, is not sedition.
  • A citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the Government, or its measures, by way of criticism or comment, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the Government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder,

Arguments in support of Section 124 A

  • Such acts are necessary to combat divisive tendencies, secessionist activities
  • Sovereign countries, including the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and other democracies, have such provisions in their penal code.
  • The freedom of speech in a country is not a license to spread disaffections hence Sedition law helps in curtailing it.
  • Calls for violent revolutions seeking to overthrow the government, appeals for a separate Khalistan or Kashmir and other atrocity propaganda, which does not qualify as protected speech and has the ability to denude the legitimacy of a democratically elected government. 
  • Supreme Court has repeatedly observed that the mere possibility of misuse of a provision does not per se invalidate the legislation. In such cases, the vulnerability extends only to the ‘action’ and not the ‘section’.

Arguments against Section 124A

  • For decades, successive governments have used a colonial-era sedition law – the dreaded section 124a of the antiquated Indian Penal Code – against students, journalists, intellectuals, social activists, and those critical of the government.
  • The law is purely used now to instil fear and intimidate people who protest against authority
  • It is a constraint on the legitimate exercise of constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and expression.
  • The British, who introduced sedition to oppress Indians, have themselves abolished the law in their country.
  • The terms used under Section 124A like ‘disaffection’ are vague and subject to different interpretation to the whims and fancies of the investigating officers.
  • 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 the national integrity. There is no need for Section 124A.
  • The sedition law is being misused as a tool to persecute political dissent.
  • In 1979, India ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which sets forth internationally recognized standards for the protection of freedom of expression. However, misuse of sedition and arbitrary slapping of charges are inconsistent with India’s international commitments.

Source: Indian Express