Author: Het Dholakia
Year of study: 2nd
Institute of affiliation: Symbiosis Law School, Nagpur
Sedition laws have been highly debated for their relevance in a post-colonial India.Earlier it was used by the British to silence the freedom fighters of our country, but ever since then; they are still in existence in 2021, sometimes being misused by the political leaders of our nation. It is high time for the growth of our country to scrap or revise the laws which give the officials the freedom to accuse anyone who opposes them or their policies of sedition in order to silence them. In the name of inciting violence or creating disorder, the citizens of India are being violated of their fundamental rights. We need to take cognizance of this issue and bring into light the problems revolving around it.
Keywords – sedition laws, Supreme Court hearing, misuse of article 124(A), history of sedition law.
Years after independence, on July 15th 2021, the Supreme Court examined a very significant question – Is there still a necessity for sedition laws in India? The relevance of the law came into question after 75 years of independence when the apex court agreed to scrutinize a plea by a retired army officer who challenged the constitutional validity of the law on the basis that it was an unreasonable restriction on article 19(1) (A) which guarantees the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression. The Supreme Court bench headed by chief justice N.V Ramana expressed their concern over the apparent mis-use of this law and it also came into question why the government that is repealing various state laws, but is not getting rid of the sedition laws. Quoting CJI Ramana, – “This dispute about law is concerned, its colonial law, it was meant to suppress the freedom movement, the same law was used by British to silence Mahatma Gandhi, Tilak etc. Still is it necessary after 75 years of Independence?” A very important question indeed, it can’t be helped but pondered as to why the law is still in effect and not struck “down”.
WHAT EXACTLY IS SEDITION LAW?
According to section 124 – A of the Indian legal code, which deals with the offence of sedition, “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 in India, shall be punished with imprisonment which can reach three years, to which a fine could also be added; or with a fine. So, if anybody speaks out with hatred or malice against the government can be imprisoned. Now to further understand sedition law carefully, we need to look into how and where it originated from.
The first case of sedition was presumably Queen-Empress v. Jogendra Chunder Bose & Ors., (1892) ILR 19 Cal 35 in 1891, where the editors of a Bengali magazine were charged for writing against the government policy of age of consent and criticizing it. The editors had argued that this law took away their right to freely exercise their opinions The publishers could not be exonerated of legal duty just because they did not write the seditious content, according to the Calcutta High Court, because the magazine’s circulation was meant to be read by the target population. From this case, the court had also emphasized on actual criticism and disaffection.
Another such landmark case is of Queen-Empress v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak & Keshav Mahadev Bal, (1897) ILR 22 Bom 112, where Tilak was tried for sedition for the incitement of violence which caused the death of two British officials. He had criticised the colonials in his magazine ‘Kesari’ and was held guilty.
Therefore, the question arises about the importance of sedition law. Is it really essential in protecting the interests and well-being of the government, because various groups of people have conflicting opinions about the future of sedition laws? As the CJI asked about the relevance of the law, while also calling it colonial, there can be a doubt of political tyranny or a chance of mis-use of sedition laws. Governments can use the law to silence anyone who criticise them or their policies. The validity of the entire provision can be questioned and needs to be in check. Some guidelines have to be laid down in order to curb the government from misusing the power of sedition laws. They need to be kept in check in order to not exploit the fundamental rights of the citizens. Disaffection towards the government is a right and cannot be taken away in the name of national interest.We can speak out and express our opinions against the governments and ministers as long as there is no incitement of violence as that is an essential of sedition law. Even our former Prime Minister Nehru was a critic of sedition law, and was strongly in favour of getting rid of it, he had described it as “highly objectionable and obnoxious”. Still after 50 years, the law still stands.
It has been noted in various cases where the mis-use of sedition laws is apparent. Due to thepoorly written definition of sedition law, many times the police can wrongly accuse the people as the law does not state which acts fall under sedition. In many instances, journalists who dare speak out against the acts or policies of the government are slapped with a case of sedition and imprisoned. One such person is Kishore Chandra Wangkhem, a journalist who has been in and out of jails for speaking out against the chief minister of Manipur. The point to be noted here is all his criticisms and Facebook posts had nothing to do with inciting violence or threatening national security. So, despite that he has been incarcerated by the officials who have no fear of the consequences for mis-using the law. Apart from that, there are countless cases where government officials have tried to book people with sedition cases for mere criticism of the government which comes under a fundamental right, even though not absolute.
A recent and very salient case is of climate activist Disha Ravi who was charged with sedition because of the so-called alleged connections with the farmers protest violence. There wasn’t even a shred of evidence connecting the accused to the perpetrators of the violence according to the additional sessions judge Dharmendra Rana. So, in short, Ravi was accused of sedition and arrested without there being actual proof that her actions had caused violence. The Delhi court’s ruling said that the government cannot put citizens behind bars just because they aren’t agreeing with the state policies. This ruling clearly shows how the government is indiscriminately misusing the law.
Another such example is of activist Akhil Gogoi, the man responsible for leading protests against the citizenship amendment act in Assam. The government officials were thinking that this might cause them trouble and inconvenience, shut him down and he was thrown into jail with the charge of sedition. Is this what our country has come to, that mere raising our voices and free speech can be harmful? Gogoi later contested and won, the unjust mark of the charge of sedition was taken off him.
But what about the officials? They roam around escaping culpability, silencing anyone who dare speak out against their policies. The government is supposed to help and protect the people, not look out for their own benefits. This is why a better system with just laws of sedition is needed. Either scrap the entire section of sedition laws, or make them accurate and just, and not just a tool for the government to silence anyone who seems like a threat. Every day, citizens, journalists, activists get charged for sedition with not enough proof and on flimsy grounds. They are deprived of their rights and freedom. This is not the future our forefathers imagined while drafting the constitution. Not the country where laws like sedition can freely deprive the people of their liberty. In his poem, ‘where the mind is without fear’ Tagore talks about a country where we can freely maintain our dignity, our freedom. He had envisioned India as a new and envisioned country. The point to be noted is that Tagore wrote this poem during the period when India was struggling for independence from the British, but even after 75 years of independence, a colonial-era law of sedition is being used to shatter the voices of the citizens. I quote the apex court as it rightfully said that ‘our concern is mis-use of the law and no accountability of the executive’. That is something that needs to be changed as we progress towards a better and developing future. The scope and limits of sedition need to be drastically limited for the progress of our country.
The Supreme Court has put some emphasis on this matter, there is a hope that the law of sedition may be scrapped or revised so that no authority can use it as a tool to harm the democratic integrity. The term “sedition” has a lot of complexity and should be used with caution. Our country is the biggest democracy in the world and article 19(1)(A) guarantees the freedom of speech and expression to each person unconditionally. Therefore, Section 124A should not be used fraudulently as an instrument to supress free speech. The concept of sedition should be restricted to exclusively cover matters relating to India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. We, as people of the Indian Republic, must urge that the sedition statute be repealed in its entirety in order to realise the goal of the Constituent Assembly, which rejected sedition when drafting the Constitution.