The Sedition Saga: What’s With This Colonial-Era Law That the Centre has Decided to ‘Reconsider’


In a U-turn just two days after defending in the Supreme Court the penal law on sedition, the Centre on Monday said it has decided to review the legislation, a move which has come based on instructions from Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself.

Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju said on Monday that the change in stance came after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s instructions to re-evaluate the necessity of the colonial law in the present times. The PM urged to remove the obsolete law, Rijiju said.

The Centre also told the SC that reviewing and repealing old laws is an ongoing process and that the Government of India has already scrapped 1,500 laws since 2014-15.

Amid Centre’s about-turn on its stance over the sedition law, IPC Section 124A, and the upcoming hearing in court of the pleas challenging it, let us decode what exactly is this British-era penal law and why it keeps facing legal challenges.

What exactly is sedition ‘law’

The colonial era law on sedition was drafted in 1837 by British historian-politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, the man considered to be behind introduction of western-style education system in India.

While the term “sedition law” is commonly used in the country, it is important to note that it is in fact the Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which deals with sedition offence and that the word itself is not mentioned in the section anywhere.

This means that what we call the sedition law is not a separate Act by Parliament but part of the IPC that covers all substantive aspects of criminal law in India.

As defined by the Oxford dictionary, sedition refers to “the use of words or actions that are intended to encourage people to oppose a government”.

Punishment Under IPC Section 124A 

As mentioned under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), “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 for life, to which fine may be added, or with impris­onment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine”.

To break it down in simpler words, anyone found guilty of committing seditious acts – by words, spoken or written, by signs or by actions – can be punished under the Section 124A of IPC with imprisonment up to three years to a life term and fine.

Sedition is a non-bailable offence.

What exactly is the issue with sedition law in India

One of the main problems with the sedition law is that it is poorly defined and can be interpreted in many ways, making it, what its opposers call, a handy tool for the government to misuse and persecute political dissent.

What is considered bringing or attempts to bring into “hatred or contempts” or “attempt to excite disaffection” is nowhere clearly defined in official records, giving the government and the police the power to slap individuals with sedition charges for something that they did or expressed as part of their exercise of free speech.

Over the years, scores of intellectuals, human rights activists, filmmakers, university teachers, students, and journalists have been slapped with sedition charges for voicing their issues with the government or its policies.

Apart from arguments against sedition that it takes away right to question, criticize and change rulers, which is very fundamental to the idea of democracy, those against it also believe that if the British, who introduced sedition to oppress Indians, have themselves abolished the law in their country, there is no reason, why India cannot do away with it.

What do arguments in support of Section 124A say

While we mostly hear challenges that the sedition law faces, there are some arguments in its support as well. Supporters of IPC Section 124A are of the opinion that it has its utility in combating anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements.

Another argument in support of the sedition law is that it protects the elected government from attempts to overthrow the government with violence and illegal means.

Recent sedition cases

Author Arundhati Roy, environmental activist Disha Ravi, journalist Siddique Kapan, activists activist Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Gulfisha Khatoon, Ishrat Jahan, Safoora Zargar and Meeran Haider are prominent faces who have been charged under sedition.

While Arundhati Roy was slapped with sedition charges for her controversial remarks on Kashmir, environmental activist Disha Ravi faced sedition charges for sharing a ‘toolkit’ for a global online campaign supporting the farmers’ protest against Centre’s three farm laws.

journalist Siddique Kapan was booked under under provisions of sedition law for his alleged links with Popular Front of India (PFI), extremist Islamic organisation.

There, meanwhile, has been a huge cry over sedition cases against activists Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Gulfisha Khatoon, Ishrat Jahan, Safoora Zargar and Meeran Haider for their alleged inflammatory remarks during anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests and ‘premeditated conspiracy’ to create riots in Delhi in February 2020.

First known use of sedition and SC’s stand on the law

The first known instance of the use of sedition law was in a trial against newspaper editor Jogendra Chandra Bose in 1891.

Other prominent people against whom the law was used at the time are Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad, and Vinayak Damodar.

This is not the first time the constitutionality of sedition has been challenged in the Supreme Court. It was first taken up by the court in the landmark case Kedar Nath Vs State of Bihar (1962). It was in this case that the court upheld the constitutional validity law on the basis that this power was required by the state to protect itself.

However, the court had added a vital caveat that “a person could be prosecuted for sedition only if his acts caused incitement to violence or intention or tendency to create public disorder or cause disturbance of public peace”.

The current case in Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is set to hear on May 10 petitions against the sedition law filed separately by former army officer SG Vombatkere, the Editors Guild of India, TMC MP Mahua Moitra, NGO PUCL, and some journalists.

A bench of three judges comprising Chief Justice N V Ramana and Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli, on May 5, said that it would hear arguments on May 10 on the legal question of whether the pleas challenging the colonial-era penal law on sedition be referred to a larger bench for reconsidering the 1962 verdict of a five-judge constitution bench in the Kedar Nath Singh case.

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