Insights into Editorial: Should the sedition law be scrapped?
Dissent is the lifeblood of democracy. But today when the stench of fascism looms large, exercising this constitutional right can get one branded as anti-national, thrown behind bars or a lynch mob waiting outside to teach you a lesson. A law that has especially come in handy for the self-proclaimed nationalists of our times to suppress dissent is the archaic colonial era sedition law.
What you need to know about Sedition law?
The sedition law was incorporated into the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 1870 as fears of a possible uprising plagued the colonial authorities. Most of this penal code was retained intact after 1947. Despite demands to scrap it, the law of sedition remains enshrined in our statute book till today.
What is sedition?
Section 124A of the IPC defines sedition and says:
- 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, the government established by law; or
- Whoever by the above means excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law, has committed the offence of sedition.
According to the law, disaffection includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity. However, disapprobation of the measures or administrative action of the government to obtain their alteration by lawful means is not an offence.
- In the recent years the ease with which complaints of sedition or speech that allegedly hurts the sentiments of a community are brought before the police and criminal action initiated against the speakers is a cause of worry.
- Figures of the National Crime Records Bureau reveal that in the two years preceding the JNU case, there were a total of 77 sedition cases.
- Beyond the high-profile urban cases, the reach of Section 124-A has extended even to faraway places. An entire village in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu had sedition cases slapped against it for resisting a nuclear power project. Adivasis of Jharkhand, resisting displacement, topped the list of those slapped with sedition in 2014.
Why should it be scrapped?
Draconian laws such as the Section 124-A only serve to give a legal veneer to the regime’s persecution of voices and movements against oppression by casting them as anti-national.
What has Supreme Court ruled?
The Supreme Court has persistently held that for the offence of sedition to be satisfied, there has to be a causal relationship between speech and acts of violence, and mere speech, regardless of how subversive it is, does not amount to sedition.
Is it time to scrap these laws?
- People concerned with the misuse of these laws often ask for them to be repealed or struck down on the grounds that they violate Article 19(1)(a). But herein lies the problem. Most of these laws have, in fact, been challenged and their constitutional validity has already been upheld.
- Section 295A (“deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”) was found to be constitutional in the Ramjilal Modi case (1957) and Section 124A (sedition) was held to be constitutional in the Kedarnath case (1962).
- Both these were Constitution benches and even though the effect of these judgments has been subsequently watered down through more liberal judgments, these cases remain the law of the land.
Short term measures:
- All speech-related offences should be made bailable offences; this would lessen the harmful impact of using arrest and custody as a way of harassing anyone exercising their rights under Article 19(1)(a).
- The offences should be made non-cognisable so that there is at least a judicial check on the police acting on the basis of politically motivated complaints.
- In the case of offences under Sections 153A (“promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc, and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony”) and 295A of the Indian Penal Code, it is mandatory under Section 196(1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure to obtain prior sanction of the government before taking cognisance of the offences. This needs to be extended to the offence of sedition under Section 124A.
- In the case of hate speech, it is important to raise the burden of proof on those who claim that their sentiments are hurt rather than accept them at face value. And finally, it is crucial that courts begin to take action against those who bring malicious complaints against speech acts.
Democracy has no meaning without freedoms and sedition as interpreted and applied by the police and governments is a negation of it. Hence, before the law loses its potency, the Supreme Court, being the protector of the fundamental rights of the citizens has to step in and evaluate the law and may declare Section 124A unconstitutional if necessary. The word ‘sedition’ is thus extremely nuanced, and needs to be applied with caution. It is like a cannon that ought not be used to shoot a mouse; but the arsenal also demands possession of cannons, mostly as a deterrent, and on occasion for shooting.