The Supreme Court of India recently revived the debate over the contentious sedition law by raising questions over its validity. The observations came when it agreed to examine a fresh plea by a former army officer challenging the Constitutional validity of the sedition law on the ground that it “causes a chilling effect on speech and is an unreasonable restriction” on free expression, a fundamental right. The top court has also asked the Centre why it is not repealing the archaic law which was promulgated by the Britishers to silence the voices raised against the rule and suppress the freedom movement. The debate was revived earlier this year when the Delhi High Court granted bail to Disha Ravi in a sedition case in February. The court remarked that sedition cannot be invoked to minister to wounded vanity of governments.
A plea was filed in the Supreme Court by a retired Army General S.G. Vombatkere earlier this month demanding to scrap the law. He has contended that the 1962 judgment in the Kedar Nath case upholding Section 124A (sedition) was given at a time when doctrines like ‘chilling effect’ on speech were not developed significantly. The petitioner had submitted that the law criminalises expression based on vague terms such as disaffection towards the government or contempt towards the government. The court had also clubbed Vombatkere’s petition with the one filed by the Editors Guild of India. Former Union minister Arun Shourie and Common Cause NGO had also filed separate pleas challenging the constitutional validity of the law.
What is Sedition Law?
The sedition law, which is known as Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), was prepared by British politician Thomas Babington Macaulay who is also known for shaping the form of English education in India. The Section was included in the IPC in 1870. The law states that anyone who attempts to excite disaffection/hatred towards the government established by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added or with fine. The law also bars the accused from applying for a government job.
Controversies surrounding Section 124A
Controversies surrounding the sedition law are not new. Even Mahatma Gandhi had termed Section 124A a tool designed to suppress the liberty of the citizens. Successive governments have used the law against political leaders, activists and media among others, actions that have been criticised as alleged attempts to suppress dissent. Not only the central but state governments have also used the law. Recently, the West Bengal government filed a sedition case against Kamtapur Liberation Organisation chief Jibon Singha for calling Mamata Banerjee an ‘outsider’. In another case, the Lakshadweep administration charged filmmaker Aisha Sultana under the sedition law over her comment in which she had called the UT’s administrator Praful Patel a ‘bioweapon’. According to government data, 326 sedition cases were registered across the country between 2014 and 2019 and only six persons were convicted of these. Manipur journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem was also arrested on sedition charges and was later slapped with the NSA but he was also granted bail by Manipur High Court.
Supreme Court’s view on Section 124A
On July 15, the Supreme Court had said that the sedition law belonged to the colonial era and questioned the Centre whether it is still necessary after 75 years of Independence. The top court remarked that there has been enormous misuse of the law and its use ‘is like giving a saw to the carpenter to cut a piece of wood and he uses it to cut the entire forest’.
Chief Justice of India NV Ramana had remarked that the top court is prima facie of the view that sedition law has been misused to trample upon fundamental rights like free speech and liberty.
CJI Ramana also said that the court is sensitive to the public demand to review the manner in which the sedition law has been enforced to control free speech.
In May this year during the second wave of the COVID-19, Justice DY Chandrachud had said that the time has come to define the limits of sedition law. He also observed that there have been indiscriminate use of the law against people airing their grievances.
Supreme Court judgments on sedition law
Of the many instances, the Supreme Court stopping the Andhra Pradesh Police from taking coercive action against two news channels on sedition charges and quashing of the sedition charges against journalist Vinod Dua are some of the recent judgements that reflect the stringent view that the apex court has taken of the law.
What is the government’s take on sedition law?
The government had informed the Rajya Sabha in 2019 that it doesn’t plan to scrap the law, saying that the IPC section is needed to effectively combat anti-national and terrorist elements. During a recent hearing in the Supreme Court, the government submitted that the law needs to be retained with some guidelines so that it meets its legal purpose.