Context: Sedition Law (Section 124A IPC) topic is important for UPSC Paper 2
What is Sedition Law in India?
Sedition Meaning: Sedition law is an archaic law, existing since the British reign. There are evidences of its misuse by the state. It directly impacts the Fundamental Right “Freedom of speech and Expression” and meaningful dissent in the country.
How is the sedition Act defined under the law?
Sedition, which falls under Section 124A IPC, is defined as any action that brings or attempts to bring hatred or contempt towards the government of India and has been illegal in India since 1870.
Sedition as an offence committed when "any person 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 in India". Disaffection includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.
However, comments without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, will not constitute an offence under this section.
History of Sedition Act
Sedition was enacted in 17th century England when lawmakers believed that only good opinions of the government should survive, as bad opinions were detrimental to the government and monarchy.
The law was originally drafted in 1837 by Thomas Macaulay, the British historian-politician, but was inexplicably omitted when the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was enacted in 1860. IPC 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.
Impact of Sedition Law in India
Sedition is a non-bailable offence. Punishment under Section 124A of IPC ranges from imprisonment up to three years to a life term, to which a fine may be added.
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.
NCRB, starting in 2017, introduced a new category of crime: incidents of violence by “anti-national elements". These anti-national elements - bucketed into four groups: north-east insurgents, ‘Jihadi’ terrorists and Naxalites and other terrorists - had 1,012 cases registered against them in 2018.
In 2019, 9% of the sedition cases pending from previous years and filed in 2019 resulted in closure because the accused were untraceable.
Charge sheets were filed in only 17% of the cases.
That our government since 2014 has been misusing this law is evident from the fact that 96% of sedition cases against 405 persons for criticising politicians and governments were registered after 2014.
Since then, there has been a 28% spurt over previous years in the number of sedition cases filed.
Around 65% of the 10,938 individuals accused of sedition since 2010 have been implicated during the present regime.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s report, Crime in India, 93 cases of sedition were filed in 2019, which is a 165% jump from 35 in 2016.
The state of Uttar Pradesh seems to be the most enthusiastic in this regard. Around 77% of the 195 sedition cases since 2010 were registered in the last four years since Yogi Adityanath became chief minister. More than half of these cases targeted those who protested against the Citizen (Amendment) Act, 2019.
The authoritarian streak of the present regime is apparent from the indiscriminate use of the law of sedition to shackle guaranteed fundamental freedoms without reasonable cause.
This is reflected in India slipping from the 27th position in 2014 to the 53rd in 2020 in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index global ranking. In terms of press freedom too, India is ranked 142 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2020.
Major Supreme Court Decisions on Sedition Law in India:
Brij Bhushan vs the State of Delhi and Romesh Thappar vs the State of Madras. The SC highlighted debates over sedition in 1950 in its decisions in Brij Bhushan vs the State of Delhi and Romesh Thappar vs the State of Madras. In these cases, the court held that a law that restricted speech on the ground that it would disturb public order was unconstitutional. It also held that disturbing the public order will mean nothing less than endangering the foundations of the State or threatening its overthrow. Thus, 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”.
Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar In 1962, the SC decided on the constitutionality of IPC 124A in Kedar Nath Singh vs the State of Bihar. It upheld the constitutionality of sedition, but limited its application to “acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder, or disturbance of law and order, or incitement to violence”. It distinguished these from “very strong speech” or the use of “vigorous words” strongly critical of the government.
Balwant Singh vs the State of Punjab, in 1995 SC, held that mere sloganeering which evoked no public response did not amount to sedition.
Farooq Abdullah Voicing dissent against the government does not amount to sedition, the Supreme Court said while rejecting a plea to “terminate” the Lok Sabha membership of National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah and book him for sedition.
The honourable Supreme Court time and again has come forward to curb the misuse of Sedition.
About Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and its comparison with Sedition law in India
In 1967, the government enacted the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). This was meant to be a more specific law intended to impose more reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India.
In 2018, there were 1,182 cases registered under UAPA. And almost all these cases (92%) were concentrated in five states (Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Jharkhand and Manipur).
Because of its use to clamp down on dissent, the UAPA has faced similar criticisms as the sedition law.
Both the laws are invoked arbitrarily against citizens and impact investigative journalism, activists and socialists.
Under the NCRB’s breakdown of offences against the state, the biggest offence comes under the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act. The Act, which lays down the law about damage to public property, accounted for more than 80% of all offences against the state in 2018 and has increased since 2016.
Arguments in Support of Sedition Section 124A IPC:
1. Section 124A of the IPC has its utility in combating anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements.
2. It protects the elected government from attempts to overthrow the government with violence and illegal means. The continued existence of the government established by law is an essential condition of the stability of the State.
3. If contempt of court invites penal action, contempt of government should also attract punishment.
4. Many districts in different states face a Maoist insurgency and rebel groups virtually run a parallel administration. These groups openly advocate the overthrow of the state government by revolution.
5. Against this backdrop, the abolition of IPC 124A would be ill-advised merely because it has been wrongly invoked in some highly publicized cases.
Arguments against Sedition IPC Section 124A:
1. IPC 124A is a relic of colonial legacy and unsuited in a democracy. It is a constraint on the legitimate exercise of constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and expression.
2. Dissent and criticism of the government are essential ingredients of robust public debate in a vibrant democracy. They should not be constructed as sedition.
3. Right to question, criticize and change rulers is very fundamental to the idea of democracy.
4. The British, who introduced sedition to oppress Indians, have themselves abolished the law in their country.
5. The terms used under Section 124A like 'disaffection' are vague and subject to different interpretations to the whims and fancies of the investigating officers.
6. IPC and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 2019 have provisions that penalize "disrupting the public order" or "overthrowing the government with violence and illegal means". These are sufficient for protecting national integrity. There is no need for IPC 124A.
7. The sedition law is being misused as a tool to persecute political dissent. A wide and concentrated executive discretion is inbuilt into it which permits the blatant abuse.
8. 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.
Important Sections under the law regarding sedition IPC:-
IPC Section 153A- Promoting enmity between groups
IPC Section 153B- Imputation, assertions prejudicial to national integration
IPC Section 505- Creating or publishing content to promote enmity
IPC Section 124A- 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 in India, shall be punished with [imprisonment for life], to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.
Explanation 1. The expression “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.
Explanation 2. Comments expressing disapprobation of the measures of the Government with a view to obtaining their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.
Explanation 3. 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 offence under this section.
State action against those cheering for Pakistan. Is this justified?
Support for the national cricket team or its players is no litmus test for patriotism.
People who allegedly celebrated the victory of Pakistan against India in a T20 cricket World Cup match on October 24 are facing the brunt of the state. All of them are Muslims.
In Rajasthan, a young schoolteacher has been terminated by a private school and the police have charged her under IPC Section 153B for ‘imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration.
In Jammu and Kashmir, the police have registered two cases against unknown persons under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and other sections.
In Uttar Pradesh, three students from J&K have been charged under IPC Sections 153A (promoting enmity between groups), 505 (creating or publishing content to promote enmity) and, later, IPC 124A, sedition.
The wisdom, propriety or acceptability of celebrating Pakistan’s victory is beside the point. From moral, tactical, and practical perspectives, this sweeping policing is unwise.
No democracy, least of all a country of India’s size and diversity, can demand unyielding uniformity and conformity from its population, on all questions and at all times.
It is unlikely that any of these charges will stand judicial scrutiny, but that only makes this spectacle a ridiculous distraction for the stretched law enforcement system.
Far from enforcing national integration as the purported aim of this heavy-handed police action is, it will only brew more resentment and social disharmony apart from derailing young lives.
An unremitting loyalty test of citizens can be a self-defeating pursuit for a country like India that has global ambitions. People of Indian origin live around the world, with split loyalties.
There are U.S. citizens who chant victory for India at gatherings in their home countries addressed by the Indian Prime Minister, and there are British and Australian citizens who boo their own country in favour of India during sporting events.
Sports teams around the world have members of foreign origin. Infusion of toxic hyper-nationalism in sports is bad in such a world; more so for India. While the BJP has been championing this link between cricket and nationalism, other parties are not far behind as the incident in Rajasthan, a Congress-ruled State, shows.
AAP in Delhi was one step ahead and questioned the Narendra Modi government for allowing the cricket match with Pakistan. Had all this been on account of an unspoken link between cheering for the national cricket team and support for a united India, the police would have also charged those who mercilessly trolled Mohammed Shami, a Muslim in the Indian cricket team.
True, it would have been wonderful for the Indian cricket team to enjoy the unqualified support of the entire nation, but, surely, there is no reason to charge those who support another team with sedition. The Indian state looks silly now, and the whole episode bodes ill for cricket and the country.
India is the largest democracy in the world and the right to free speech and expression is an essential ingredient of democracy. Section 124A should not be misused as a tool to curb free speech.
The definition of sedition IPC should be narrowed down, to include only the issues pertaining to the territorial integrity of India as well as the sovereignty of the country.
The word ‘sedition’ is extremely nuanced and needs to be applied with caution. It is like a cannon that ought not to be used to shoot a mouse; but the arsenal also demands possession of cannons, mostly as a deterrent, and on occasion for shooting.