Sedition in India: IPC Section 124 A Vs Freedom of Speech

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Recently, the Delhi Police filed a charge sheet against 10 people, including student leaders in a sedition case for allegedly raising “anti-national slogans” during an event on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus in February 2016.

In addition to this, as many as 12 Aligarh Muslim University students, including the university’s students’ union chief, were recently booked under sedition charges after a complaint of alleged assault was filed by an ABVP member.

In another instance where an Assamese scholar and two others were slapped with sedition charges for remarks made against the proposed citizenship law.

 These fit a disturbing trend of many incidents in recent times where “misguided” people have been termed “anti-national” and has filed charges of sedition.

Notably, the law commission is in the process of revisiting the section 124A of Indian Penal Code and calls for a thorough reconsideration and presents the different issues with respect to it before the public for a national debate.

What is Sedition?

  • Sedition is legally defined as “the criminal act of revolting against established authority, generally in the form of treason or defamation of a government.”
  • In other words, if you are conspiring or plotting to overthrow by violence, force, harm in any way, or more specifically, kill any authority figure in the government, you have committed sedition.
  • Sedition not only encompasses an individual’s actions but also any words or writings in print that may incite, encourage or promote the overthrowing of the government. To overthrow means to remove by force.

What are the sedition laws in India?

Sedition laws can be found in the following laws altogether:

  • The Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Section 124A),
  • The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (Section 95),
  • The Seditious Meetings Act, 1911 and,
  • The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (Section 2(0) (iii)).

What is Section 124A of IPC and its history?

  • Section 124A was drafted by Thomas Macaulay and was introduced by the British colonial government in the 1870s when it felt the need for a specific law under IPC to deal with increasing Wahabi movement activities between 1863 and 1870, led by Syed Ahmed Barelvi and centred around Patna.
  • It mentions that the act of sedition refers to bringing hatred or contempt against the government established by law in India.
  • In this case, the punishment may be of imprisonment for life and fine, or imprisonment for 3 years and fine.
  • It was actually introduced to suppress the freedom struggle prevalent then.
  • In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the law was mainly used against Indian political leaders seeking independence from British rule.
  • Britishers famously used the clause in three separate, successful trials of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and also later, in prosecuting Mahatma Gandhi in 1922.
  • Mahatma Gandhi, who was charged with sedition, famously said the law was “designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”.
  • In 1962, the Supreme Court imposed restrictions on the use of the law, making incitement to violence a necessary condition.

What are the arguments against Section 124A?

Violation of fundamental rights:

  • Centre and the States have invoked the section against activists, detractors, writers and even cartoonist to silence political dissent by accusing them of promoting disaffection = violation of their fundamental right to free speech and expression under Article 19 of the constitution.
  • According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 35 cases of sedition were reported in 2016. Several of these cases did not involve violence or incitement to violence.

An age-old law:

  • It was introduced by the British to suppress the freedom struggle and its existence at present is not justified.
  • Even Britain abolished this law 10 years ago. Then why India still have this section alive.

Definition:

  • Definition of sedition remains too broad = misuse.
  • Under the present law, it offers scope to consider the following as seditious.
    • Strong criticism against government policies and personalities.
    • Slogans voicing disapprobation (condemnation) of leaders.
    • Depictions of an unresponsive or insensitive regime.

Inconsistent with ICCPR:

  • India ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
  • Misuse of sedition law under Section 124A and the arbitrary imposing of charges are inconsistent with the ICCPR.

Inconsistent with SC directive:

  • In recent times, the core principle provided by the Supreme Court in this regard has been forgotten.
  • It mentions that incitement to violence or tendency to create public disorder are the main ingredients of the offence.

What are the arguments in favour of Section 124A?

Misuse of free speech: The primary reason behind the continuation of the Sedition Act after independence was to prevent the misuse of free speech (reasonable restriction) that would be aimed at inciting hatred and violence.

Deter insurgents: It would be very dangerous to abolish the section due to the insurgency by Maoists and other rebel groups. These groups openly advocate the overthrow of the state government through armed revolution.

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What is the observation by Law Commission?

  • In an earlier report in 1968, the Law Commission had rejected the idea of repealing the section.
  • Later in 1971, the panel wanted the scope of the section to be expanded.
    • It called for covering the Constitution, the legislature and the Judiciary under the ambit of the law, in addition to only ‘government’. Because disaffection against all these institutions should not be tolerated.
    • The only dilution the commission wanted was to modify the wide gap between the two jail terms prescribed (either 3 years or life). It called for fixing the maximum sanction at 7 years’ rigorous imprisonment with fine.

What is the way forward?

  • As long as sedition is seen as a reasonable restriction on free speech on the ground of preserving public order, it will be difficult to contain its mischief.
  • Therefore, there are 2 ways to undo the harm that sedition provision does to citizens’ fundamental rights:
    • It can be amended = much narrower definition of what constitutes sedition.
    • The second and best course would be to repeal the section altogether.

Conclusion

Criticism against the government policies and decisions within a reasonable limit that does not incite people to rebel is consistent with freedom of speech and expression. Currently, the section is being slapped against any disagreeing entity, without any fairness. It is this grey area, which needs to be corrected. Only when it amounts to an incitement to violence, such sections should be brought in.

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