- Section 124A of Indian Penal Code lays down the provisions of sedition.
- Sedition means conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch.
- These laws were first established by the British Government when it ruled India in 1837.
- Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar (1962) is one of the most important cases dealing with the constitutionality of Section 124A.
- Section 124A is said to be violative of the right of Freedom of Speech and Expression mentioned under Article 19(1) (a).
“Freedom of Speech is a principal pillar of a free Government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins.”
One of the most important perquisites of a democratic nation is the right to speak freely and it is said that it acts as one of the most important safeguards that are enshrined in the Constitution. The Constitution of India entitles this important Fundamental Right to the citizens under Article 19(1)(a) which is the Freedom of Speech and Expression however, this freedom is not absolute and is liable to reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2).
The restrictions to the Right of Freedom of Speech and Expression are not only enshrined in the Constitution but are also present as sedition law in the Indian Penal Code of 1860. These laws were implemented by the State to protect its interest and safeguard itself from the people who tried to incite hatred against the State but with the change in the country and thoughts of people, it has been started to be used as a weapon many times to shut the people in case they try to criticize the State. The law which once was used as a protective measure has become a weapon in the hands of the State which is used as per the state’s whims and will.
In the present scenario, the people have become more aware of the doings of the State and understand their Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression and exercise this Right to criticize and question the State. The increasing awareness has created a state of paranoia in the State and the State has turned to the subjection of sedition law against several people by putting them behind the bars, putting fine, therefore infringing their Fundamental Rights.
The concept of sedition is not new to the Indian Government and has its roots from the colonial times when India was under the control of the British Government. The anti-sedition law was first formulated in India in 1837 by Thomas Macaulay but it was not added to the IPC that was formed in 1860. It was added into the IPC in 1870 as Section 124A for the offences against the State and was done with as a response to the rising radical Wahabi movement, led by Syed Ahmed Barelvi. It was aimed to curb the rising voice of the Indian leaders and politicians against the British rule as they wanted to keep control in the Indian subcontinent and the punishment for sedition was life imprisonment.
An amendment was made to it in 1898 when the words “bringing or attempting to bring in hatred or contempt towards the Government established by law is punishable” were added to Section 124A and it was later amended to change the punishment to ‘imprisonment for life and/or with fine or imprisonment for three years and/or with fine”.
Post-independence, there were several debated within the Constituent Assembly as to how obnoxious this Section was and it should be waived as it violated one of the most important Fundamental Rights but it was never done away within a practical sense. Jawahar Lal Nehru, while introducing the first Constitution Amendment Bill in 1951, emphasized the fact that this law had no place in independent India.
PRE-INDEPENDENCE LANDMARK CASES OF SEDITION
Before India claimed its Independence, the sedition laws were often used by the British officials to torture and put an end to any political arguments that were put up by Nationalist Politicians, journalists, and press owners as well as writers and poets.
Maharani vs. Bal Gangadhar Tilak
One of the most popular cases of sedition was of Bal Gangadhar Tilak who was accused of sedition not once but twice. First, in 1897, when his speech led to the killing of two British officers and he was convicted for sedition in 1898. The second time, when he was defending Indian revolutionaries and publishes an article in the newspaper Kesari and was convicted for sedition again.
Journalist Jogendra Chandra Bose
In this case, the journalist wrote an article criticizing the Age Consent Bill, 1891, and his criticism was regarded as disobedience towards the State and created disaffection and hence he was accused of sedition.
Sedition trial of Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhiji wrote three ‘politically sensitive’ articles in his weekly journal Young India which were published between 1919 and 1932 and he was imprisoned for 6 years for the offences of tampering the loyalty and inciting disaffection towards the British Government.
CONSTITUTIONALITY OF THE SEDITION LAW
The sedition laws were made by the British Government to curb the rising voices of Indian nationalists but its impact can be seen in the present governance also. The constitutional validity of Section 124A has been challenged many times before several courts on the ground that it was violative of the Fundamental Rights enshrined under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution. It is argued that the right to speech, criticize the Government, and disagree with its policies is the foundation of democracy, and the principles laid down under sedition laws are contrary to the principles of democracy. These laws are called the weapon of tyranny in the hands of British rulers and they hold no place in free India as they contradict the concept of Independence.
Romesh Thapar v. State of Madras
In this case, the Madras Government had banned the Red Cross newspaper owned by the petitioner and he had contended before the Supreme Court that the act of the Government was violative of his Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19(1) (a). The Apex Court quashed the order of the state and held that restrictions under Article 19(2) can be imposed in the cases where the issue of public security is involved.
Tara Singh Gopi Chand v. State (1951)
In this case, two pleas were pending against Tara Singh regarding two speeches that he had given, one in Karnal and one in Ludhiana, and one of the offences under which he was charged was Section 124A of sedition. He challenged the validity of sedition stating that it was inappropriate under free India and also is in contravention to the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression. The Allahabad High Court in its judgment accepted the plea and struck down Section 124.
The Central Government, unhappy with the decision, approached the Supreme Court and the matter of constitutionality was the first time taken up by this Court, in the case of Kedar Nath Singh.
Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar (1962)
In this case, the petitioner was charged under sedition for speeches made by him against some Government officials. He was convicted for sedition by the Magistrate Court in Patna and the order was sustained by the Patna High Court upholding his conviction. He filed an application before the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of Section 124A on the ground that it was violative of the Fundamental Rights mentioned under Article 19. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the Section stating that Article 19(2) allows the Government to put restrictions on the Freedom of Speech and it also includes public order.
LAW OF SEDITION AND FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS
The concept of freedom of speech has been recognized globally and all have supported it as the basic right of a human being. The Right to Speech is considered as the fundamental of democracy as it allows the people to express their views and to keep a balance in the society where citizens appreciate and criticize their governments and keep a check on the arbitrary powers of the State.
In India, it has been granted under Part III, Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution but it is attached to restrictions that are mentioned under Article 19(2). Every person has the right to express their views, opinions, or even criticize the Government but all this can be done within the restrictions as the Right is not absolute. It is important for the functioning of the democracy in the county that the restrictions put on the Fundamental Rights are reasonable and not arbitrary and the Courts must safeguard this right.
Sedition laws act as one of the restrictions on the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression and day by day it has become an arbitrary source of power for the Government to shut the people who try to criticize it. The law which was laid down by the British Government to control and dominate Indians is now being used by the Government on students, activists, journalists, and others who take a stand against the Government.
The conflict between the Fundamental Rights and sedition laws has been continuing since Independence and has not reached any conclusion. The points that are raised in the conflicts are that Section 124A is ultra vires the provisions of the constitution, the words used in the law are vague and ambiguous and are open to interpretation having no certainty and can be applied without any restrictions endangering the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression.
Climate activist Disha Ravi case
In the instant case, climate activist Disha Ravi was arrested by Delhi Police on the allegations of being involved in the sharing on social media a “toolkit" related to the farmers’ protests and she was charged with conspiracy and sedition.
Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan
In this case, a Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan was arrested on the grounds of sedition and connections to the Popular Front of India (PFI) a radical group that was funding against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). He was on his way to Hathras to meet the family of the victim who passed away after she was allegedly gang-raped.
Journalist Vinod Dua Case
Vinod Dua was charged under Sections 124A (sedition), 268 (public nuisance), 501 (printing matter known to be defamatory), and other offences on the complaint filed by BJP leader Ajay Shyam against his YouTube video, and it were alleged that he accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of using “deaths and terror attacks” to get votes.
VIEWS OF EMINENT JURISTS
Eminent jurist and former Attorney-General of India, Soli J Sorabjee in an article discussing sedition laws in India stated that sedition is not unconstitutional and it becomes an offence only if the words, spoken or written, are accompanied by disorder and violence and/ or incitement to disorder and violence. Mere acts of hooliganism, disorder and other forms of violence cannot be considered sedition as they do not threaten the integrity of the State.
When asked about several cases of sedition against journalists, he mentioned that it depends on facts and circumstances of the cases and the interpretation of Section 124A is important to put a case under sedition.
Speaking at a seminar organized by a non-profit organization in Ahmedabad, former Chief Justice of India Deepak Gupta mentioned that sedition laws of the country should be toned down, if not abolished. He referred to recent arrests under sedition laws and stated that how people were being arrested for making cartoons, morphing images of political leaders, and allegedly spreading rumors was over social media about power cuts in a State. He said that if they had to be punished, then it should be under the laws of defamation.
He referred to the sedition trial of Mahatma Gandhi and mentioned that no individual can be forced to have affection for the Government and merely because people strongly disagree with the Government's actions they cannot be arrested on the grounds of sedition. He said, “Citizens have the right to criticize an elected Government, and criticism by itself cannot amount to sedition”.
The present Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana remarked that the Supreme Court is convinced that the law of sedition is being misused by the authorities to interfere with the citizens’ Fundamental Rights of free speech and liberty. He sent a clear signal to the Government that Section 124A of IPC has lived its time and it should be done away with.
FOREIGN SEDITION LAWS
The Malaysian Sedition Act 1948 was enacted by the colonial authorities of British Malaya in 1948. The Act criminalizes speech with "seditious tendency and comprises of laws not only of laws on sedition against any ruler, ruling Government, Constitution but also includes hate speech made on a racial basis.
Though the British Rule established the rules of sedition in India, the sedition laws in the United Kingdom are not that stringent. The last prosecution for sedition in the United Kingdom was in 1972 where three men were charged for seditious conspiracy and uttering seditious words. In 2009, the section dealing with sedition was abolished from the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 on the ground that sedition laws were unnecessary and were not needed in the present governance. The UK still punishes sedition by aliens under Section 3 of the Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act 1919.
United States of America
The sedition laws in the USA were established under the Sedition Act of 1798 that punished the proposing or resisting any law of the United State and writing or publishing any false, scandalous, and malicious content about the US President but this Act was removed in 1801. The Espionage Act of 1917 made any acts or words a federal crime that was against the American army or navy made with an intent to disrupt its operations.
The sedition cases were common in the country during the 20th century but after the recommendation from the New Zealand Law Commission, the New Zealand Government announced that sedition laws would be repealed and it was done in 2007 by passing The Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Act 2007 of New Zealand.
Sedition has been an extremely controversial law in India and the controversies had been never-ending. The contradiction between the Fundamental Rights and the sedition laws have said to been faces of the same coin as one protects the rights of the citizen, and the other protects the safety and integrity of the country. These laws have been many times used in an arbitrary manner and it has been suggested that these laws are incompatible with the present situation of the country and they should either be removed or amended according to the need of the country.
These laws that were imposed almost 200 years ago have no place in modern society and are proving to be a bane rather than a boon and have adversely affected the freedom of citizens. Almost all the developed nations around the globe have either repealed their sedition laws or have toned them in conformity to the present situation.
Usage of these laws cannot be done to force the people to accept all that is done by the State and citizens should not be punished merely because they do not agree with the Government’s ideologies and policies. It is the fundamental right of all the citizens to speak up and criticize the Government that rules them and it also helps in the development and it should not be taken away by oppressive laws of sedition.