As per the latest NCRB crime report showed that 76 sedition cases were registered across the country in the year 2021, 73 registered in 2020 followed by 93 cases registered in 2019. In May this year, the Supreme Court ruled to pause sedition trials until the government re-examines them.
“It will be appropriate not to use this provision of law till further re-examination is over. We hope and expect that centre and state will desist from registering any FIR under 124 A (sedition law) or initiate a proceeding under the same till re-examination is over,” Ex-Chief Justice of India NV Ramana said.
What is Sedition Law, and why does it need to be re-examined?
According to Section 124A of the IPC (Indian Penal Code) ‘Sedition’ means, anyone who 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 punish with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added” and is a “non-bailable offense”.
However, the section simply mentions the law of sedition in passing. Whereas it encompasses the crimes that are punishable by law, it does not provide a clear meaning of the term “sedition.”
The provision also contains three explanations:
- The expression “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity;
- Comments expressing disapprobation of the measures of the Government to obtain their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt, or disaffection, do not constitute an offense under this section;
- 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 offense under this section.
The Essence Of Section 124A
The essential ingredients of Section 124A are that:
- There should be words, Signs, Visible representation, or otherwise,
- Brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt,
- Excite disaffection, towards the Government established by law
Penalty For Sedition
- A person guilty of sedition is penalized by imprisonment ranging from 3 years to a lifetime, a fine, or both, according to Section 124A of the IPC.
- Sedition is a cognizable offense, which implies that the police will arrest someone accused of sedition without the need for a warrant.
- Sedition is a non-bailable charge, thus the police cannot, as a matter of right, release someone who has been arrested for it on bail. He must ask for bail in front of a court or magistrate.
- Because sedition is a non-compoundable offense, it cannot be resolved through a compromise between both the accused and the victim.
Which Activities Are Considered Seditious?
According to the Indian courts’ view of sedition, the following are examples of seditious activities:
- A group of individuals raised chants against the Indian government.
- A person’s rhetoric calls for violence or public unrest.
- Provokes violence or social disruption through written material, such as a newspaper story.
Words, Conduct, Or Anything Else
The first and most important element of sedition under Section 124A is some act performed by an individual or a group of individuals. A gesture or sign, spoken or written remarks, etc. In a sedition trial, the very first thing which must be proven is that the individual on trial did participate in the conduct before determining whether it was seditious or not. A sedition case can’t be brought against the accused unless some actual gestures or remarks can be linked back to him.
Excites/Tries To Excite Disaffection, Or Brings/Tries To Bring Into Hatred Or Contempt
The core of sedition is found in the intent of the accused. Such a person must actively seek to instill hatred, disgust, or disdain for the government inside the minds of the masses. Disillusionment has been defined as any feelings of disloyalty or animosity against the state (Explanation 1 under Section 124A).
The act or phrase itself can reveal a person’s desire to sow hatred or discontentment. The simple attempt to incite hatred is penalized under the Section, thus it is not essential to determine whether the perpetrator achieved the objectives or not.
The legal challenges faced by this law are because of how it affects the right to speech and expression of the citizens. In Romesh Thapar v State of Madras,1950 it was held that “criticism of the government exciting disaffection or bad feelings towards it, is not to be regarded as a justifying ground for restricting the freedom of expression and the press unless it is such as to undermine the security of or tend to overthrow the state.”
Judgments and views:
Justice Patanjali Shastri cited the Constituent Assembly’s deliberate omission of the word sedition from the Constitution for the liberal reading of the law. Further, the Punjab and Haryana High Court in Tara Singh Gopi Chand v. The State (1951), and the Allahabad High Court in Ram Nandan v. State of Uttar Pradesh (1959) declared that Section 124A of the IPC was primarily a tool for colonial masters to quell discontent in the country and declared the provision unconstitutional.
However, in Kedarnath Singh v State of Bihar,1960, A five-judge Constitution Bench overruled the earlier rulings of the high courts and upheld the constitutional validity of IPC Section 124A. To prevent misuse the court took the measure by restricting its scope, The court held that unless accompanied by incitement or a call for violence, criticism of the government cannot be labelled sedition. The ruling restricted sedition only insofar as seditious speech tended to incite “public disorder”- a phrase Section 124A itself does not mention but was read into it by the court.
Seven guidelines were introduced, which underline when critical speech cannot be classified as sedition. The Court said, not all speech with “disaffection”, “hatred,” or “contempt” against the state, but only speech that is likely to incite “public disorder” would qualify as sedition.
Following the Kedar Nath verdict, “public disorder” has been considered a necessary ingredient for the commission of sedition. The court has held that mere sloganeering unaccompanied by any threat to public order would not qualify as sedition.
In subsequent rulings, in Balwant Singh v. State of Punjab (1995) and Dr. Vinayak Binayak Sen v. State of Chhattisgarh (2011), the court held the real intent of the case should be considered and the person can be charged with sedition even if they merely circulated the words or idea. Last year in Vinod Dua v Union of India, the Supreme Court quashed FIRs with charges of sedition against the journalist for criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis and cautioned against misuse of the provision.
In the infamous tool kit case, Disha Ravi, a Bangalore-based climate activist was arrested related to a Farmers’ protest because of sedition, promoting enmity and criminal conspiracy. A Delhi court granted bail, observing that the “offense of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of governments. The trial court rejected the Delhi Police’s charge that she was part of a “larger conspiracy” to incite violence in the national capital on January 26.
“I am conscious of the fact that it is very difficult to collect evidence for the offense of conspiracy but I’m equally conscious of the fact that what is difficult to prove for the prosecution in the affirmative is virtually impossible for the defence to prove in the negative,” the order stated.
The above cases show that sedition laws can be easily misused and restrict the right to speech and expression. It is an easy tool in the hands of local leaders to shut down a particular dissenter. They can simply approach the local police station and file a complaint. It has a great restraining effect on those who speak and thinks freely.
Justice Deepak Gupta: Criticism Of Government, Army & Judiciary Can’t Be Construed As Sedition
“Criticism of the executive, the judiciary, bureaucracy, and armed forces cannot be termed sedition,” Justice Gupta remarked. “If we stifle criticism of these institutions, we shall become a police state instead of a democracy.”
Speaking at a lawyers’ workshop organized by a charitable trust in Ahmedabad, Justice Gupta said that majoritarianism cannot be the law and that the minority also has the right to express its views. He slammed the tendency to declare people as “anti-national” for holding a different point of view. He also criticized social media trolling, maintaining that people were scared to express their views.
Right to Dissent:
The freedom to dissent is the right to disagree. It falls under the scope of Article 19 (1) of the Indian Constitution’s Part-III (Fundamental Rights). Clause (1) of the Article provides all people the right to free speech and expression under subclause (a).
There can be no democratic democracy in which citizens do have not the right to think for themselves, express their opinions, have their own beliefs and faith, and worship as they see fit.
The right to disagree is an essential component of both the right to free expression and the right to conscience. As a result, one of the most vital rights granted by our Constitution is the right to dissent. As long as a person does not infringe on the law or incite discord, he has the right to believe differently from every other citizen and those who are in power.
Every culture has its own set of norms, and when people just follow the same old rules and traditions, society degenerates over time. When people disagree with widely held social norms, new thinkers emerge. If everyone stays on the well-trodden path, no new trails, no fresh excursions, and no new views will be discovered. If a person doesn’t ask questions and raise issues that challenge age-old concepts and systems, no new systems will emerge and the mind’s horizons would not grow.
New thoughts and religious practices would not have been established if Buddha, Mahavira, Jesus Christ, Prophet Mohammad, Guru Nanak Dev, Martin Luther, Kabir, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Karl Marx, or Mahatma Gandhi had quietly submitted to the views of their forefathers and not questioned the existing religious practices, beliefs, and rituals.
Every belief need not be religious in a secular society. According to the Constitution, atheists have equal rights. Under our Constitution, everyone, whether a believer, an agnostic, or an atheist, has full freedom of belief and conscience. There can be no barriers to the aforementioned rights other than those allowed by the Constitution.
HR Khanna, J.’s decision in the A.D.M. Jabalpur case is a remarkable example of dissent that is far more valuable than the majority’s view. It was a bold and incorruptible Judge’s decision. Judges take an oath, swearing or affirming that they would carry out their duties to the best of their abilities, without any fear or hesitation, affection or malice. The first and most important component of one’s job is to execute one’s duty without fear.
Is Anti-Sedition Legislation Effective?
The Supreme Court’s ruling was based on the rationale that maintaining public order and averting threats to the integrity and stability of the country require some form of restriction on the “Freedom of Speech and Expression.” This is correct our Fundamental Rights can’t be unlimited; they must be confined within reasonable limitations to guarantee that they do not cause harm to others.
However, criticism of the state is part of the very core of democracy, as the courts have also emphasized. The problem emerges when the Anti-sedition law is applied unfairly to the populace and used as a tool to stifle free expression to force the populace to silently obey whatever the government orders.
Sedition law has been one of the most debated topics in Indian law and polity ever since independence. On one hand, is the fundamental right to freedom of speech and the core of democracy and on one hand, we have the aspect of public good – “the greater good”. Which side wins? That is the question that has vexed the nation. This law must be only used for its intended purpose and not misused. This is extremely important given the fact of how easy it might be to use this law in certain cases.
We need to make sure that everyone’s right to freedom of speech is protected and that they can exercise it freely. It is as Voltaire puts it, “I might not agree with what you say but I will protect to death your right to say it”. That is the very core and foundation of democracy and this great nation.
Written by: Shaurya Mahajan