Published: 16th July 2021
What the FAQ: What is India's sedition law about and will the SC ever strike it down?
Sedition laws are serious business. Especially in India. But will the courts ever see their way to updating them to reflect this day and age?
The sedition law of India has been condemned by national and international human rights activists and organisations for its colonial leanings, and gross misuse over the years to suppress criticism and dissent in what is, still, a democracy. The Chief Justice of India recently made some strong remarks about the law, and in today’s FAQ, we break down what the law constitutes, why it is so contentious, and what is to become of it in India going forward
What does the IPC define sedition as in India?
Historically, Section 124a of the Indian Penal Code defines sedition as “exciting disaffection to the Government established by law in British India.” It indicts those who, by words, actions, or representations express or can incite feelings of “hatred, contempt or disloyalty” towards the government. Noted freedom fighters such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi and Shankerlal Banker have been punished under this law.
What is the punishment under the law?
Sedition is a non-bailable, cognisable offence, which can invite imprisonment upto three years, or for life, and a fine as imposed by the court in session.
When was it first introduced? And what amendments has it gone through?
The law was part of the original draft of the Indian Penal Code written under the British regime in 1837. It was officially included in the Code in 1860 to curb a possible unrest by Muslim preachers under the British Raj. It was first amended in 1898, and the current version of the law is similar in most part to this particular amendment.
Although post-Independence leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru opposed the law, and called it “obnoxious,” it stayed put. In 1958, the apex courts of Punjab and Allahabad had struck down the law. However it was reinstated in 1962 by the Supreme Court, which introduced incitement to violence as a necessary condition to imposing the law with the view to check authorities flouting it.
It was under Indira Gandhi in 1973, that it was made a cognisable offence, where an arrest without a warrant was permitted.
What are the contentious parts of the law, and has it been misused?
The law has faced multiple challenges in the public domain, as well as in the legal sphere. Just yesterday, former IT Minister Arun Shourie filed a petition in the Supreme Court saying the law violates freedom of speech. The petition, as others who have been opposing it, says that the law suppresses dissent. This is perhaps the most contentious part of the law, because what is defined as dissent in a democracy seems to have been defined as a punishable offence, sedition, under a colonial regime. “Misuse” of the law has been marked by arrests of students, activists, farmers, scholars and journalists over the years, for criticising the government. One of the more bizarre cases includes that of actor Divya Spandana who had a complaint of sedition filed by an advocate against her for saying, “Pakistan is not hell; people there are like us.” Add to that, the Indira Gandhi government Emergency-era addition of arrest without warrant, and the law becomes a dangerous tool in the hands of authoritarian leaders and officials.
What did the sitting Chief Justice of India say about the law?
Hearing another such petition to squash the law, a three-judge bench led by the Chief Justice of India, N V Ramana criticised the law, referring to its colonial heritage, and asking the government if it was necessary in the present day, when it had been once used to imprison Mahatma Gandhi. The CJI went on to say that the law suppresses freedoms, vindicating the stand taken by activists and petitioners against the law for years. He also said that it gave law enforcement officers unprecedented powers to arrest people, instilling fear in the citizens. He also remarked that the conviction rate was extremely low, and the law was aiding “misuse of power by executive agencies.”
What does it mean for the future of the law?
The remarks were received by the Attorney General of India, KK Venugopal, on behalf of the government. The attorney said that while there was no need to repeal the law altogether, the centre could “see if there were any excesses in its use and limit the Section to its real purpose.” It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will follow-up on its harsh criticism of the law, and strike it down, or leave it to the discretion of the centre to review its use of the same.