Centre’s Plan To Relook At Sedition Law is Welcome : Daily Current Affairs

Relevance: GS-2: Issues Arising Out of Design & Implementation of Policies, Government Policies & Interventions, Fundamental Rights, Judgements & Cases, Indian Constitution

Key Phrases: Need for Balance, secessionist, Section 124A, non-bailable offence, Colonial Heritage, draconian.

Why in News?

  • Home Ministry, after referring to the prime minister’s views on shedding colonial baggage as the country marks 75 years since independence, has asked the Supreme Court to defer the hearing on sedition law for now till Parliament deliberates on the issue.
  • The government emphasizes the “need for balance” in affidavits before the Court but not while invoking the provision against comedians, journalists and ordinary citizens expressing their dissatisfaction with the government.

Sedition Law (Section 124A)

  • Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) deals with sedition in India.
  • The word sedition is not mentioned anywhere in the IPC or the Indian Constitution.
  • Section 124A has been challenged in various courts in specific cases. The validity of the provision itself was upheld by a Constitution Bench in 1962, in Kedarnath Singh vs State of Bihar.

History of Section 124A:

  • The law was originally drafted in 1837 by Thomas Macaulay, the British historian-politician, but was inexplicably omitted when the IPC was enacted in 1860.
  • Section 124A was inserted in 1870 by an amendment introduced by Sir James Stephen when the need was felt for a specific section to deal with the offence.
  • It was one of the many draconian laws enacted to stifle any voices of dissent at that time.
  • Several top freedom movement leaders including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were booked under the sedition law.
  • Mahatma Gandhi described it as the “prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.”
  • Nehru had described it as “highly objectionable and obnoxious” which “should have no place in any body of laws that we might pass”. Nehru said, “The sooner we get rid of it the better.”

Provisions of Section 124A:

  • Section 124A IPC States:
    • “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 a fine may be added; or, with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added; or, with fine.”

Punishment if Convicted:

  • Sedition is a Non-bailable offence. Punishment under the law varies from imprisonment up to three years to a life term and fine.
  • A person charged under this law can’t apply for a government job.
  • They have to live without their passport and must present themselves in the court as and when required.

Arguments in Support of Section 124A:

  • Combating Anti-National Activities: Section 124A of the IPC has its utility in combating anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements
  • Stability of Government: 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
  • Contempt: If contempt of court invites penal action, contempt of government should also attract punishment
  • Countering Insurgency: 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
  • Need of Sedition Law: Against this backdrop, the abolition of Section 124A would be ill-advised merely because it has been wrongly invoked in some highly publicized cases.

Arguments against Section 124A:

  • Colonial Heritage: Section 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.
  • Against the Relevant Constitutional Sentiment: Dissent and criticism of the government are essential ingredients of robust public debate in a vibrant democracy. They should not be constructed as sedition. Right to question, criticize and change rulers is very fundamental to the idea of democracy.
  • Vague Law: The terms used under Section 124A like ‘disaffection’ are vague and subject to different interpretations of the whims and fancies of the investigating officers.
  • Political Misconduct: 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.
  • Abrogation from other Countries: It has been repealed in many nations such as Britain, so the demand for its repeal also arises in India.
  • Unnecessary Provision: There are other provisions in the Indian Penal Code and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 that criminalize “disrupting the public order” or “overthrowing the government with violence and illegal means”. Therefore, Section 124A is not required.

Judicial Interventions on Sedition law:

  1. Tara Singh Gopi Chand v. the State,(1951):
    • In 1951, the Punjab High Court had ruled Section 124A to be unconstitutional. A similar ruling was passed in 1959 by the Allahabad High Court, which also concluded that it struck at the very root of free speech.
  2. Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar,(1962):
    • The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of Section 124-A (sedition) on the basis that this power was required by the state to protect itself.
    • However, it said that every citizen has a right to say or write about the government by way of criticism or comment. A citizen can criticize the government to the extent it does not incite people into violence against the government or with the intention of creating public disorder.
  3. Balwant Singh v State of Punjab,(1995):
    • The Supreme Court acquitted persons from charges of sedition for shouting slogans such as “Khalistan Zindabad”.
    • The court held that the mere raising of slogans by two individuals alone cannot be said as sedition. Further, it is also not considered an attempt aimed to excite hatred or disaffection against the government.

Way Forward:

  • Sedition is, no doubt, a controversial concept, it must be held in a delicate balance with our ‘Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression’.
  • In an era where the citizens are increasingly aware of their rights and liberties and have a growing sense of duty and responsibility in this democratic system, perhaps it is the perfect time to consider reform in this law.
  • The interpretation laid down by the Indian courts and the actual implementation of this law sometimes differ, which has led to people labeling the applied law as “draconian”.
  • Courts must adopt an effect-based test that examines the effects of the seditious text. It means whether the text resulted in violence or not.
  • The principles of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity exist in the Preamble to our Constitution. Courts must uphold these principles.

Source: The Hindu

Mains Question:

Recently the Central Government has planned to relook the sedition law. In this context critically analyze the sedition law prevalent in the country and support your answer with relevant judgements.