SEDITION LAWS AND ITS NEED FOR INTERPRETATION

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INTRODUCTION

Sedition has always been a topic of discussion and is also an extremely controversial term. This was introduced by the Britishers in 1870. Even after India got its independence the term sedition continued to have its presence in our Indian Penal code. There is a lot of ambiguity when we talk about sedition and it creates confusion in the mind of people. The Constitution of India, 1950 pens down a set of fundamental rights that are available to the citizens of India. One of the most important fundamental rights that are granted to the citizens is the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression mentioned under the Article 19(1)(a)[1]. Although this is a fundamental right of the citizens there are a few reasonable restrictions placed on it for the welfare and proper functioning of our country. Therefore, one of the situations where the right to freedom of speech and expression can be restricted is in the cases of Sedition. Any action, signs, speech in written or oral form that showcases discontent or tries to provoke the citizens against the established government in order to spread hatred is what we can term as sedition in layman’s terms. Thomas Babington Macaulay drafted the Section 124A under chapter VI of the Indian Penal Code which deals with the concept of Sedition and has been identified as a criminal offence in India since 1870.

MEANING OF SEDITION

Section 124A[2] states that “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 a fine may be added; or, with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added; or, with fine.”

Sedition is a strictly cognizable and a non-bailable offence amounting to punishment for a time period of 3 years and exceeding up to the lifetime of a person or fine or sometimes even both. Further, this is also a non-compoundable offence which means there can be no settlement between the accused and the victim. But it is also important to understand that not all the activities that showcases discontentment towards the government can be termed as sedition and punishment will be given to them. Only the activities that try to provoke the citizens to spread hatred and violence towards the said government is punishable. One is always free to express their opinion on certain matters provided they are not exceeding their rights to do the same. An important case in this regard will be:

Niharendu Dutt Majumdar V King-Emperor (1942)[3]

A speech was delivered by the appellant in the following case in Calcutta on 13th of April, 1941 as a result of which he was sentenced to imprisonment up to a time period of 6 months and was also charged with fine of Rs. 500. His speech was being considered seditious and hence he was being subjected to this.

The court in this case gave us the meaning of sedition stating that intention of a person should be to create public disorder while acting seditiously. His words or actions in some way should create public disorder in the society at large. Therefore, incitement to violence and causing public disorder is a very crucial element when talking about sedition. The court further ruled in the favour of the victim stating that his speech was not exceeding the legal boundaries that are available to him while talking about the government. His act thus cannot be considered sedition under the Defence of India Act, 1939.

WHY SHOULD SEDITION LAWS BE STRUCK DOWN?[4]

The constitutional validity of section 124A has been challenged several times and it is criticised at all times by the people. The presence of this sedition law clearly targets their fundamental rights and existence of such a law in free India is what makes them object it. It is the last thing used by the political parties to supress the people and use it to favour themselves as an incentive. The arguments provided against this section are following-

The law is quite a vague law and it uses terms like disaffection. There is no proper understanding of the same as it is a wide concept the meaning and interpretation of which can change as per the desire of the authorities involved. Disaffection means a feeling other than affection. There is no clear understanding as to what can constitute disaffection towards the government. We can also cite a few examples where this law has been used in a way to curb political dissent like arrest of 14 students of Aligarh Muslim University for raising anti-slogans, arresting a student activist for his/her social media post on citizenship amendment act,2019. There is no proper understanding as to when to charge someone for this crime and when is he exactly exceeding his legal boundaries. India has always taken part in signing of various international treaties and covenants which also includes the signing of International Covenant on civil and political rights, 1979. But the inconsistency of this law and random arbitrary charges being pressed on people is clearly indicative of the fact that India is failing to full fill its international commitments as well. Some people are also of the opinion that since there are already so many laws and provisions including the Unlawful activities(prevention) Act,1967 that punishes any sort of activity which creates a situation of public disorder. Further, section 121A also criminalises waging war against the government. So, in spite of presence of these laws and provisions what is the need for section 124A is the question. Although it might not be possible to entirely scrap down section 124A but there is a need for interpretation for the same as well.

Even the Law Commission of India in its recent papers in 2018 published that its high time that now the authorities should either re-think or repeal the section 124A of India Penal Code. In the very famous case of Kedar Nath V State of Bihar,1962[5] the supreme court further went on to explain the meaning of sedition and it also determined what is NOT sedition. The court upheld the constitutional validity of this law but at same time it made an attempt to stop the government from misusing this law and therefore explained what cannot be the case of sedition. It said that the acts of subverting the government that would lead to hatred or public disorder would be counted as sedition. But any strong words used while putting forward their viewpoint against the government cannot be counted as sedition if it is not trying to incite a feeling of hatred or violence in the minds of the government established. A citizen therefore has all the rights to state his opinion about the government in writing or words as long as it is not creating a feeling of hatred among the public.

Even after Kedarnath case there used to misuse of this law by police officers. In lack of guidance and enquiry there is always a room for exploitation and misuse of this law. The sedition laws were scrapped down by United Kingdom in 2009 on the grounds that it is irrelevant and suppresses the freedom of speech of a person. India’s aim should also be to curb this law so as to not intervene with the freedom of speech given to the people. Although some people think that due to presence of Naxalism and conflicts in Jammu and Kashmir presence of section 124A is important. But there are laws talking about armed conflicts and secessionism. Laws against waging wars are mentioned under section 121-140[6] of Indian penal code. Further, sections 141-160[7] talk about offence dealing with public tranquillity. So, curbing this law will help to reduce its misuse.

The most important question is that does a free country like India really needs a law like sedition which was brought in by the Britishers to exploit the people before independence. Irony is that even after India got its independence this law is being used to bully and terrorise the citizens of India itself.

Recently there has been developments and the Supreme court has been trying its best to bring changes. A case was registered against the senior journalist and Padma Shri awardee Vinod Dua for his strong remarks against our prime minister and union government in one of his You-tube telecast. He strongly criticised Narendra Modi by stating that he had used the means of death and terror attack in order to get votes. He further went on to say that there were not enough facilities for tests of covid patients and also personal protective kits were not available. He said that Narendra Modi had made false statements. It was believed that all the statements of Mr. Dua were false and that it created fear among the people. This will cause unrest among the public. The supreme court quashed the complaints against the senior journalist stating that strong words showing disapproval against the government cannot amount to sedition. As a journalist he was just stating his opinion and touching upon the issues of grave concern. The court relied on the principles laid down in the case of Kedarnath Singh. Prosecuting Mr. Dua for offences under Section 124A or 505[8] would be not justified. It will violate his freedom of speech available to him. Not only did the court ruled in the favour of Vinod Dua but also said that journalists cannot be just arrested because they voiced their opinion and criticised the government. The supreme court itself realised that there is a need for interpretation in the sedition law. Following things have been observed by the supreme court-

  • Difficulty in balancing freedom of press and sedition

The constitution of India guarantees freedom of press as a fundamental right under article 19(1)(a) of the constitution. But article 19(2) also gives the state power to put some restrictions on this freedom given to the citizens. By the understanding we get from the Indian judiciary it is quite clear that our fundamental right to expression and the power available to the government to restrict cannot be on equal footing.

  • Criticising the government cannot always be cited as sedition

Just mere words showing dissatisfaction towards the measures taken by the government in order to take some alternations through lawful means is not something that can be termed as sedition and they cannot be punished for the same. No such speech or statement being given that does not excite the public and spread hatred, contempt or violence against the government cannot be an offence under this section. By making someone punishable for having an opinion against the government one is basically taking away their freedom of speech.

Specially in case of journalists, there work is to let the public know about everything happening in the world. While doing their job if there are some strong words used by them, they cannot be punished for the same.

  • Dishonour to India

Sedition laws causes dishonour to a country like India having such a robust media. It was observed by the old prime minister in old days itself that there should be free press having a few limitations on their action but having a controlled press is problematic. In countries like United States, Canada, Australia etc., sedition laws have been done away with long back.

  • Very Vague Law

The ambiguity of this law and vagueness makes it difficult for people to have a proper understanding of the same. Section 124A does not specify everything in a clear manner and this enough to either struck this law down or look into section 124A again and interpret it properly for better understanding of the people and to avoid the misuse of this law.

In the judgement of Shreya Singal V Union of India (2015)[9] supreme court observed that vagueness of this law is enough a ground to struck this law down.

  • Sedition was never a part of article 19(2)

There are a few restrictions that has been put on one’s freedom of speech and expression. But article 19(2) never included sedition as one of its restrictions. Now using article 19(2) in order to charge somebody for the offence of sedition is definitely not a right thing to do. It was the constitutional assemblies joint decision to not include sedition in the article 19(2).

  • Conduct the test of causation and proximity

The supreme court in various cases have specified tests that should be conducted while trying to determine what is and what is not sedition. In the Kedar Nath V State of Bihar case and Balwant Singh V state of Punjab,1995[10] supreme court has mentioned that there should be an imminent danger while talking about sedition. A clear and imminent danger should only be the basis for restricting someone’s freedom of speech and expression.

These are the few observations that have been made by the Supreme Court which is why it has become of great importance to interpret this law.

RECOMMENDATIONS.

  • Sedition law which is currently a non-cognizable and non-bailable offence should be now cognizable and bailable because that will make it easier to do judicial check-ups on the police authorities who basically arrest people on the basis of complaints that are politically motivated. This can help the people getting arrested from being harassed and the harmful impact of this law can be reduced.
  • The police departments should be clearly instructed that the arrest of a person should only happen if they actually violated the law and actually done something which can be harmful for the society. Just because the speech offended someone it cannot be a ground for arresting a person and restricting his/ her freedom of speech.
  • Punishments related to sedition should also be reduced, it should be made more reasonable. Unless the comments have caused some serious damage they should be dealt with delicately and rationally.

CONCLUSION

The historical background and everything that have been written above clearly indicates that sedition law needs to be struck down. It basically tries to threaten or make people fearful whenever they try to speak their mind and want to question the government if they are not satisfied with how ever they are functioning. There is no place for such a law in a free India in 21st century. Any opinion against the government posted in social media or voiced out in public cannot constitute sedition in today’s world. Despite of constant attempts made by the public for striking this law no government have ever shown willingness to strike this down. Such a regressive and unconstitutional law that makes the people fearful as it has no proper grounds for arresting under this law is even needed in the year 2021 where every citizen is free and has an opinion of its own.  In this era where people choose their own government and have increasing sense of understanding their rights and liberties in the democratic system, this is the perfect time to interpret and reform this law.

Sedition has been in question ever since it was introduced by the British people. Even the leaders of our India like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru have always criticised it. Mahatma Gandhi described this law as the prince among the political sections of our Indian Penal code which was mainly designed to supress the liberty of its citizens. Nehru also stated that law like sedition which is so highly obnoxious should have no place anywhere is our Indian Penal Code. He said it’s better to get rid of such a law as soon as possible. Even though this law has always been opposed it was never struck down.

So, in a progressive country like India where this law has existed for more than 70 years now its high time that we re-think not scrapping this down.


[1] Indian Constitution, Art.19.

[2] Indian Penal Code,1860, S.124.

[3] AIR 1939 Cal 703

[4] Sedition laws in India: Critical analysis, Pranjal Sharma, available at https://lexforti.com/legal-news/sedition-law-in-india/ (last modified Oct 23, 2020)

[5] 1962 AIR 955

[6] Offences against the state, Indian Penal Code,1860 S. 121-140

[7] Offences against public tranquillity, Indian Penal Code, 1860, S.140-160

[8] Statement conducting to public mischief, Indian penal code, 1860, S.505.

[9] AIR 2015 SC 1523

[10] (1995) 3 SCC 214

Author: Ayushi Gupta, Symbiosis Law School, Noida

Editor: Kanishka VaishSenior Editor, LexLife India.

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