Does India Need Sedition Law?

    Sedition is an expression of dissatisfaction towards the government and its policies, through the means of violence and hatred. Sedition is dealt with under Sec. 124A of the Indian Penal Code [1]. Fundamental Right enshrined in the Constitution of India provides us with ‘Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression’, under Article 19(1)(a). The right provided under this Article is not absolute, and the restrictions are given under Article 19(2) of the Constitution. The restrictions can be put for maintaining public order and protecting the security of the nation. 

    Introduction

    Freedom of Speech and Expression, as a fundamental right has been enshrined in the Constitution of India, under article 19(1)(a). Its range extends to expressions in artistic, philosophical, religious and scientific forms also. The main approach the Judiciary takes, is to balance the freedom of speech on one hand and national sovereignty and security on the other.  One more restriction that Article 19(2) has is ‘Reasonableness’. Free speech is the foundation stone of a democracy.

    Reg v. Alexander Martin Sullivan [2]– In this case, the concept of Sedition was established. Judge Fitzgerald, explained Sedition as the act which incites hatred towards the established law governing authority.

    In the case of Queen-Empress v. Jogendra Chandra Bose and Ors.[3], the accused was charged with sedition, for criticising the government, through his articles in the magazine ‘Bangobasi’. This case elaborated the understanding of the charge of Sedition. The charge against Jogendra was dropped.

    In the case of Queen-Empress v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak [4], Sec. 124A was for the first time applied. Tilak was against Plague Control methods of a Civil Officer. Tilak’s speeches incited violence, leading to the death of two officers, which brought the charge of sedition against him.

    Punishment of Sedition

    Punishment for Sedition under Sec. 124A of IPC is imprisonment of 3 years, can be extended till lifetime, or fine, or both. It is a non-bailable, cognizable and non-compoundable offence. Seditious activities against the government may include raising slogans, inciting hatred through speeches, or newspapers or any other written material.

    Origin

    Sedition law was framed by Thomas Macaulay in 1837. After the enactment of the Indian Penal Code, this law was not included initially. It was added later in the year 1870 under Sec. 124A, under Chapter VI, under Offences against State. Before independence, most of the sedition cases have been made against the freedom fighters.

    In Ram Nandan v. State of Uttar Pradesh [5], it was held by the court that freedom of speech and expression cannot be curbed, and section 124A of IPC, not being in the interest of the citizens, is ultra vires.

    First amendment of the constitution, put addition in article 19(2), by bringing the words ‘public order’. This was done to prevent the government from using the law unnecessarily, without violating freedom of expression. The validity of the law of Sedition has been questioned in the court of law numerous times, the Supreme Court favoured the law in the judgement Kedar Nath v. State of Bihar (1962).

    Sedition

    Explanation 1 of Section 124A defines ‘Disaffection’ as enmity and disloyalty towards the government. This feeling of hatred is incidental from the acts of the person. The attempt of such incitement is also punishable. The purpose or mens rea is relevant, but whether the purpose is achieved or not is irrelevant. The purpose of this section was to bring stability to the government, to maintain the integrity and security of the state from such contempt.

    Only the words that incite such hatred are charged under sedition, it excludes such criticism of government’s actions and policies which are done rightfully. Explanation 2 and 3 of the section explain what all are excluded from sedition.

    In Tara Singh Gopi Chand v. State [6], Tara Singh was charged with sedition. His claim was that we being a democratic country, which recently got freedom, needs to be done away with such law which restricts our fundamental right to speak. The High Court considered the claims made, and struck down the provisions of Sedition.

    The Supreme Court took this issue, after the Government put an appeal. The legality of Sedition was decided in the case of Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar [7]. The appellant in his speeches had made remarks of calling officials of government ‘Goons’. His speeches promoted people to strike against the government. The Apex Court in this case stated that since Article 19(2) includes Public order, any speech or criticism that destroys such order will come under this section of Sedition.

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    Arguments in favour and against

    In Favour

    The Apex Court explained that some restrictions are required to protect the integrity and public order within the nation. Freedom of expression requires reasonable restriction for the smooth functioning of the government, for maintaining law and order. Rebel groups and insurgents which spread violence and disturb order, by running parallel managements, needed to be curbed. Contempt of government is required to be made punishable too, like that of Contempt of Court, to the extent required.

    Against

    Sedition Law was used by the Britishers to suppress the resistance by the Indians. Many freedom fighters have been charged under this section. The section restricts the liberty of people. The meaning of the term ‘Disaffection’ is open to interpretation, which makes it vague. The law has been misused by the political parties to suppress dissent.

    India has signed international treaties like International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in the year 1979. International treaties such as these commit to the freedom of expression of individuals; law such as sedition is inconsistent with these treaties. Statutes such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967[8], criminalises illegal means which bring violence and destroy public order. Law of Sedition is an unnecessary provision in light of such laws.

    Is Section 124A needed?

    Aseem Trivedi, known for his “Cartoons against Corruption”, faced allegations because of his cartoons. One of his cartoons had four wolves instead of lions on Ashok Chakra with the slogan “Bhrastamev Jayate”. Another cartoon showed “Mother India” assaulted by a bureaucrat and a politician, which said “Gang Rape of Mother India”. He was charged with sedition under s. 124A of IPC, the National Emblem Act, 1971 and S. 66A of the IT Act. Later on, the charge of sedition was dropped. Justice Katju’s statement was that Aseem did nothing illegal.

    Aseem Trivedi’s website was banned by the Mumbai Police, stating that content was “defamatory and derogatory”. A battle against corruption, through his cartoons, Trivedi tried to express reality. Freedom of speech and expression has been curtailed in India, but also worldwide. Putting a ban on his cartoons also put restrictions on work of social media and networking sites.

    Sedition has been a part of the Indian law machine long before independence.  Jawaharlal Nehru called the section “highly objectionable”. Mahatma Gandhi said that the section suppresses the liberty of the citizens. It is one of the many laws that stifle voices of dissent.

    This section protects the government from attempted overthrow through violent and illegal means. It was not removed after independence, and it continued its existence as it became an essential condition for the stability of the State. It combats anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements. The charge of sedition restricts the legal existence of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Criticism and dissent are an active part of the functioning of any government. Without these essential features, the idea of democracy will be violated.

    Conclusion

    The law can be reformed to make it applicable to only such acts of extreme violence or threat, posing grave threat to the integrity and security of the nation, to be included under the section. Unrestricted freedom is no way for a democracy to work, but restriction must be put such that the essential features of our democracy are not vitiated. The essential feature of a democracy is free expression. Positive criticism cannot be included under this section, it would vitiate the purpose of the section, making it similar to the condition that was prevalent before democracy was achieved.

    This section has been misused multiple times. A report released by the National Crime Records Bureau showed that 179 arrests have been made in the year 2014 to 2016, but the filing of charge-sheets accounts to less than 70% of the total cases. The Law Commission in the year 2018 published a paper recommending the reforms needed to be made in the law. Sedition is a serious violation of Article 19 of the Constitution of India, and reforms need to be made in the law, considering that the times have changed from when the law was first made.

    References 

    [1] The Indian Penal Code, 1860.

    [2] Reg v. Alexander Martin Sullivan, (1868) 11 Cox’s Cr. C. 51.

    [3] Queen-Empress v. Jogendra Chandra Bose and Ors., (1892) ILR 19 Calc 35.

    [4] Queen-Empress v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, (1898) ILR 22 Bom 112.

    [5] Ram Nandan v. State of Uttar Pradesh, AIR 1959 Alld. 101.

    [6] Tara Singh Gopi Chand v. State of Punjab, AIR 1950 SC 124.

    [7] Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar, AIR 1962 SC 955.

    [8] The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.


    BY RASHI VISHWAKARMA | NATIONAL LAW UNIVERSITY ODISHA

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