Police arresting Indian citizens on charges of sedition has been increasing recently. The latest being the cases against Amnesty International and movie actress and Congress leader Remya. Though most of the cases are finally dismissed, the accused are put into lot of hardships and the process of defending the charge itself has become a punishment. The Indian Supreme Court has now reiterated that only incitement to violence and public disorder can be prosecuted under Sedition law.
The Supreme Court on Monday asserted that “making a strong criticism of the government” is not even defamatory, let alone seditious. The court also directed all authorities, including police and trial judges, to follow its Constitution Bench ruling which stated that only incitement to violence and public disorder could form the basis of a sedition charge. A bench of Justice Dipak Misra and Justice Uday U Lalit maintained that it would not be within the fold of criminal jurisprudence to issue uniform guidelines for registration of FIRs under sedition charge, but underscored that a larger bench has already provided necessary safeguards that should be followed by all authorities. “Suppose somebody makes a strong criticism of the government… even a case of criminal defamation cannot be filed, let alone a case of sedition. Every magistrate is bound by what we said in the Kedar Nath (case),” said the bench. In Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar, 1962, a Constitution Bench had ruled in favour of the constitutional validity of Section 124A (sedition) in the IPC, but 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”.
NGO Common Cause and others had moved the top court, seeking guidelines in terms of this judgment. Arguing for the Public interest Litigation (PIL), advocate Prashant Bhushan submitted before the bench that policemen are usually unaware of the safeguards provided in the Kedar Nath case, which has resulted in arbitrary arrests of people and registration of numerous cases of sedition. Citing the National Crime Records Bureau report, the PIL had pointed out that 47 cases of sedition were filed in 2014 alone, with 58 persons being arrested in connection with these cases. The government, however, managed only one conviction. The petition further said cases had been lodged against writer Arundhati Roy, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, civil rights activist Binayak Sen, 67 Kashmiri students in Uttar Pradesh, actor Aamir Khan, Tamil folk singer S Kovan and JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar to “threaten” them.
Indian Penal Code (IPC) drafted by colonial British Government came into effect in 1860. The section on sedition was added in 1870 to suppress the freedom aspirations of Indians. Most of the leaders of India’s freedom movement has been put in jail under this provision. Mahatma Gandhi once denounced the law against sedition in the court: “Section 124A under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen.” The sedition law reads like this:
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. Explanation 1-The expression “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity. Explanation 2-Comments expressing disapprobation of the measures of the attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section. Explanation 3-Comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.
Law makers of independent India retained this section of law though Jawaharlal Nehru was definitely against it. He said:
Take again Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code. Now so far as I am concerned that particular section is highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons, if you like, in any body of laws that we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better,”
Still the section remained in the law books and the ruling politicians and the Police found it more and more useful in suppressing dissent especially coming from extreme Left ideology. The most important interpretation of the law came in the Kedarnath case. The Supreme Court division bench opined that sedition law is constitutional but only real incitement to violence and public disorder can be prosecuted and punished under the law. Now the Court has asserted the same principle in dealing with alleged sedition.
Does India really need a sedition law ?
Actually no. There are enough provisions in other laws to prosecute people inciting or doing violent acts against the state. Scrapping the sedition law will only help in preventing its misuse and in strengthening the right to freedom of expression of citizens.