Sedition Law (Section 124A of IPC)

MAY 3

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IN NEWS:

  • Recently, the Centre sought more time from the SC to submit its response to petitions challenging the constitutional validity of section 124A of IPC dealing with the sedition.

WHAT IS SEDITION?

  • The Indian Penal Code defines sedition (Section 124A) 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".
  • Explanations added to the provision prescribe that while “disaffection” shall include disloyalty and all feelings of enmity, comments without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, will not constitute an offence.

PUNISHMENT UNDER SECTION 124A

  • Sedition is cognizable (not requiring a warrant for an arrest), non-compoundable (not allowing a compromise between the accused and the victim), and non-bailable offence.
  • Punishment under the Section 124A ranges from imprisonment up to three years to a life term, to which 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.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND:

  • Sedition laws were 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.
  • This sentiment was borrowed and inserted into the Section 124A of IPC by the British.
  • The law of sedition was first introduced in clause 113 of Thomas Babington Macaulay's Draft IPC in 1837, but was inexplicably omitted when the IPC was enacted in 1860.
  • Later the section 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.
  • British used Sedition law to convict and sentence freedom fighters. It was first used to prosecute Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1897.
  • Mahatama Gandhi, too, was later tried for sedition for his articles in Young India.
  • Mahatama Gandhi referred to the law as “the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) designed to suppress the liberty of the citizens”.

NEED FOR SEDITION LAW:

  • To curb anti-national, secessionist movements:
    • Sedition law helps the government to curb anti-national, secessionist movements and other extremist propaganda.
    • For example, many districts in different states face issues like Maoist insurgency. These groups openly advocate the overthrow of the state government by revolution.
  • Reasonable restriction of rights is necessary to ensure that one’s right is not violating other’s right
    • The constitution of India prescribes reasonable restrictions in Article 19; that can always be imposed on this right in order to ensure its responsible exercise and to ensure that it is equally available to all citizens.
  • To protect the elected government:
    • It protects elected government from attempts to overthrow it through violence and illegal means as continuance of government established by law is essential for political stability.
  • Sedition laws are within the scope of International conventions on rights:
    • For instance, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, provides that right to free speech may be subjected to restrictions for the protection of national security or public order.
  • Also there is an argument that if contempt of court invites penal action, contempt of government should also attract punishment.

JUDICIARY ON SEDITION LAW:

  • In Brij Bhushan v/s State of Delhi and Romesh Thappar v/s the State of Madras (1950), Supreme Court held that a law which restricted speech on the ground that it would disturb public order was unconstitutional.
  • 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”.
  • In Kedar Nath Singh v/s State of Bihar (1962) Supreme Court 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”.
  • In Balwant Singh v/s State of Punjab (1995), SC held that mere sloganeering which evoked no public response did not amount to sedition.

LAW COMMISSION OF INDIA ON SEDITION LAW:

  • In its 39th Report (1968), the Law Commission had rejected the idea of repealing the section.
  • In its 42nd Report (1971), the panel wanted the scope of the section to be expanded to cover the Constitution, the legislature and the judiciary, in addition to the government to be established by law, as institutions against which 'disaffection' should not be tolerated.
  • In August 2018, the Law Commission of India published a consultation paper recommending that it is time to re-think or repeal the Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code that deals with sedition.
  • In the recent consultation paper on the sedition, the Law Commission has suggested invoking 124A to only criminalize acts committed with the intention to disrupt public order or to overthrow the Government with violence and illegal means.

ARGUMENT AGAINST:

  • Against right to free speech in Article 19:
    • Sedition laws lead to a sort of unauthorised self-censorship, for it produces a chilling effect on free speech.
    • Free speech is one of the most significant principles of democracy and is the first and foremost human right
  • Anti-democratic:
    • It suppresses what every citizen ought to do in a democracy — raise questions, debate, disagree and challenge the government's decisions.
  • Global practices:
    • Many of the countries like United States and Australia where such laws existed had repealed the same. Even the UK, where the law originated, has already repealed it.
  • Against international conventions:
    • Sedition laws are incompatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of UN
  • Against the spirit of framers of Constitution:
    • The Constituent Assembly debated to include sedition as a ground for restricting free speech.
    • However, this was successfully opposed for fear that it would be used to crush political dissent
  • Rampant misuse:
    • For instance in 2019, A lower court in Bihar directed the filing of an FIR under section 124A (Sedition) of IPC against 49 eminent persons who signed an open letter to the Prime Minister of India expressing concerns over mob lynching.
    • Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show that 194 cases of sedition have been filed since the CAA was passed on December 2019. Most of these cases were booked against for mere sloganeering etc.
  • Low conviction rate:
    • Between 2016 and 2019, the number of cases filed under Section 124-A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) increased by 160% while the rate of conviction dropped to 3.3% in 2019 from 33.3% in 2016, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
  • Vague provisions in the law:
    • The terms used under the Section 124A like 'disaffection' are vague and subject to different interpretation.
  • Other legal measures are available:
    • IPC and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act have provisions that penalize "disrupting the public order" or "overthrowing the government with violence and illegal means". So these legal measures are sufficient to protect national integrity instead of section 124A.

SUGGESTIONS:

  • Role of Judiciary:
    • The higher judiciary should use its supervisory powers to sensitize the magistracy and police to the constitutional provisions protecting free speech.
  • Limit its applicability:
    • The definition of sedition should be narrowed down, to include only the issues pertaining to the territorial integrity of India as well as the sovereignty of the country.
  • Role of civil society:
    • Civil society must take the lead to raise awareness about the arbitrary use of Sedition law.
  • A detailed parameters for the invocation of Section 124A:
    • There is a need to lay down parameters for the invocation of Section 124A to avoid situation in which an unrestricted recourse to this law would result in a serious encroachment of guarantee of personal liberty

CONCLUSION:

  • As the Constituent assembly member Shri M. Ananthasayanam Ayyangar noted “It must be the fundamental right of every citizen in the country to overthrow that government without violence”
  • Therefore the sedition laws must invoked only in cases where the entire state itself is sought to be overthrown or undermined by force, leading to public disorder.

PRACTICE QUESTION:

Q. “Freedom of speech and expression, a cornerstone of the Indian democracy, has been put to a constant and continuous threat with the use of Section 124A”.Critically Analyse.