India’s Struggle with the Law of Sedition
Kaushal Kasliwal – Student, Kautilya
(Image Source: blog. ipleaders. in)
As we commemorate 75 years of independence in the “Amrit Kaal ” era, one of the pertinent questions of our time before us is, “Have we genuinely liberated ourselves from the clutches of colonial rule?’. Despite our celebrations as an independent nation, the haunting remnants of colonialism persist, reminding us that we have not entirely severed ties with our colonial legacy. One glaring example of this is ” The Sedition Law,” which is a law designed by the colonial government to suppress dissent and maintain control over colonized population; In the year 1922 Mahatma Gandhi remarked that the law was a “prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen” but the irony is the law is still applied in modern independent India. As per the data provided by the NCRB, there is a 163 percent hike in the cases of Sedition Law in 2019 than in 2014. This shows us that the law is not merely applied but rampantly applied in India. According to the available data, it is also evident that the conversion rate to convictions under the sedition law in India stands at a mere 3 percent. This statistic highlights the arbitrary application of the Sedition Law, leading to significant debates surrounding the democratic ideals and civic liberties within the country. Moving forward, to understand why it is a matter of discussion in India, first, we should understand the definition of the Sedition Law. As per section 124A of the Indian Penal code, “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 shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added.” The primary dissension with the Sedition Law is the inappropriateness in its definition as the word “bring into hatred or contempt” or “attempt to excite dissatisfaction” can have multiple varying interpretations due to which this law can be a convenient tool for the government to curb civil liberties of citizens. There are some examples to prove our above claims, such as in the case of Balwant Singh And Anr vs. the State of Punjab, where the accused was booked for the sedition case only raising some slogans such as “Khalistan Zindabad” and “Raj Karega Khalsa”; However, the Court held that there is no evidence of violence in such a case, so raising such slogans did not contribute to an act of sedition. In the case of Kedar Nath Singh vs. State of Bihar, where the accused criticized the government in a public rally, he was then booked under Sedition. Still, the Court held that no statement issued could be an offense under Sedition until there is any possibility to cause violence; the Court also held that a person in the case of Bilal Ahmed Kaloo vs. State of Andhra Pradesh could not be convicted for Sedition merely for criticizing the government. Recent cases, such as State vs. Disha A Ravi, where Disha Ravi, an environment activist, was arrested by police under the sedition Law for creating and disseminating a toolkit on protest on farm laws by the farmers but was granted bail by a Delhi court are examples of courts upholding that until there is an incitement to violence a person can not be convicted. However, some examples also show that other past British colonies such as Uganda, West Africa States, and Nigeria either amended the law or abolished the colonial law of Sedition.
The interpretation and application of sedition law in India has raised significant concerns, particularly regarding its impact on democratic rights like freedom of speech and expression. The Kedarnath Singh case established that sedition could be charged for incitement to violence or public disorder, aligning it with the reasonable restrictions outlined in Article 19 of the Indian Constitution to maintain public order and prevent incitement to offenses. Another concern with the sedition law is that the provisions of the law can also be used with other laws, such as with “Unlawful Activities Prevention Act” (UAPA), as of IPC which means that the provisions of UAPA that penalize unlawful activity also includes the provisions under acts of sedition which the government can use to curb democratic dissent. Such as in the case of the Hathras gang rape, and Citizenship Amendment Act Protest, cases were registered against several journalist reporting the incident. Some critical legal luminaries of the country, like Fali S Nariman, believe that “The Sedition law must go.”
Contrary to this, the recent 279th Report of the Law Commission stated that Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which is the law of Sedition, should be retained through certain amendments which may be introduced in it by incorporating ratio decidendi or rationale for a decision such as of the Kedarnath Singh judgment. The report also recommends that the punishment under the law should be increased from 3 years to 7 years. In a broad sense, the law commission’s suggestions include expansion of the scope of sedition, adding a higher degree of punishment, and incorporation of procedural safeguards to prevent its misuse.
However, the question here is why does the law commission suggest retaining the colonial law of sedition while adding a higher amount of punishment? The law commission in its report quoted certain reasons to retain the law of sedition in India. Such as to safeguard the nation’s unity and integrity, the law needs to be retained. It highlighted the concerns about India’s internal security, such as separatist movements in other regions of the country, like Punjab, Maoist radicalization, militancy, and ethnic conflict in the northeast. To counter the argument that the law has been abolished in countries like Britain, the report cited that the courts of competing jurisdictions, such as the US, the UK, etc., had their histories, physiographic regions, populations, cultural variety, and legal systems that were incompatible with Indian conditions. Despite this, some of these nations, it claimed, have combined their sedition laws with anti-terrorism regulations. The Commission also rejected the claim that the sedition legislation needed to be repealed since it was a complicated law with a colonial past and was used by the British to suppress Indian freedom fighters.
In conclusion, as India commemorates 75 years of independence, it is evident that the remnants of colonialism continue to linger, raising questions about the country’s true liberation from its colonial past. The sedition law, initially designed by the colonial government to suppress dissent, still applies in India, leading to a significant debate surrounding its arbitrary and misinterpreted usage. The problematic definition of sedition and its broad interpretation provides ample room for curbing civil liberties and stifling democracy. Despite calls for the repeal or amendment of the Sedition law by legal experts, the Law Commission recommends its retention with stricter punishments. To uphold democratic values and protect freedom of speech and expression, a comprehensive evaluation of existing laws, including the sedition law, is crucial under the basic structure principle of the Constitution. Only through such critical examination and reform can India move closer to truly breaking free from the chains of its colonial legacy and safeguarding democratic rights for its citizens.
*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.