Insights into Editorial: Why India’s Sedition Law needs to be buried
The Delhi Police filed a charge sheet against 10 people, including former Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar in a sedition case for allegedly raising “anti-national slogans” during an event on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus in February 2016.
This fits a disturbing pattern. There have been many incidents in recent times where “misguided” people have been termed “anti-national”.
For Instance, demonstrations through a slogan, a cheer, a statement, protest against a nuclear power project, or an innocuous post on social media.
In all these cases, the state, across regimes, has filed charges of sedition.
What is meant by Sedition and When it has to be Applied?
“Conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a State or monarch” can be considered as Sedition.
The sedition law was incorporated into the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 1870 as fears of a possible uprising plagued the colonial authorities.
Section 124 A of IPC 1860:
“Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise , brings or attempt to bring into hatred or contempt or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by Law is punishable with imprisonment for life.
For India, it’s a question of walking the fine line between liberty and security, tough choices and hard lessons.
Dark side of Applying Sedition Law:
Before Independence, this charge was used by the British to suppress the freedom movement.
Ironically, the same draconian law has become a tool that the country is now using against its own people.
During colonial period section 124-A was interpreted by the privy council in a way to suppress every act that expressed discontent against the govt.
Many freedom fighters were slapped with these charges for invoking feelings of nationalism and educating people of India against the policies adopted by the colonial power.
Instead of critically analysing why citizens, be they in Kashmir or Chhattisgarh or Bhima Koregaon, are driven to dissent, the government is using an iron-fist policy with the sedition law playing a leading role to completely shut out contrarian views.
When will be Sedition Law has to be Applied?
KedarNath Singh Vs State of Bihar, 1962:
- Constitution Bench of Supreme Court upheld the validity of Sedition Act.
- But, Supreme Court stated that Persons can be charged with sedition only if there is incitement to violence in his speech or writing or an intention or tendency to create disorder or disturbance in law and order.
Maneka Gandhi case, 1978:
- The Maneka Gandhi judgment was a balanced judgment and is one of the best judgments that Indian Supreme Court has ever given.
- The judgment’s importance can be seen today also because the way in which the bench construed Article 21 and expanded its horizons has given way for the resolving of problems left unsolved by the Parliament.
- The SC stated that Criticizing and drawing general opinion against the Govt. policies and decisions within a reasonable limit that does not incite people to rebel is consistent with the freedom of speech.
- It’s quite evident that this judgment has played an imperative role.
- The judgment while saved the citizens from unquestionable actions of Executive.
- One of most important judgements in this regard is Balwant Singh v. State of Punjab, Supreme Court overturned the convictions for sedition(124A IPC) and Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc (153 A IPC).
- More importantly, in the Balwant Singh vs State of Punjab, where the sedition charges were removed even when there were allegation of yelling ‘Khalistan Zindabad’ is a testimony to the fact that ‘incitement’ rather than ‘advocacy’ is the important element of section 124A.
Of course, we know that sedition can’t be applied to instances of criticism of the government or a political functionary.
More importantly, words alone are not enough for such a charge to be slapped. Incitement to violence is the most crucial ingredient of the offence of sedition.
In times like these, it seems like a sham to say that criticism of the state is the essence of democracy.
In raking up the JNU issue after three years, the government is not shying away from playing politics around patriotism and nationality.
Going through the numbers that the National Crime Records Bureau puts out every year, it is clear that despite the rise in sedition cases, convictions happen in barely a few.
Even if these people are not convicted, the slapping of these charges is a way the governments over the years have been sending a strong message to its own people obey or be ready to face consequences.
Freedom of Speech and Expression is a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a).
Article 19(2) imposed reasonable restrictions. Moreover, the first Amendment to the Constitution on June 18, 1951, imposed further restrictions.
To call for the overthrow of a stale and fearful social system is not sedition.
The argument used against the scrapping of the sedition law is that the Supreme Court has repeatedly observed that the mere possibility of misuse of a provision does not per se invalidate the legislation.
Democracy has no meaning without freedoms and sedition as interpreted and applied by the police and governments is a negation of it.
Hence, before the law loses its potency, the Supreme Court, being the protector of the fundamental rights of the citizens has to step in and evaluate the law.
To uphold the idea of democracy that the founders of the Constitution envisioned, India should deliberately avoid using the word sedition from its statute books and everyday vocabulary. Hoping that reason prevails over politics when it comes to freedom.