The Relevance of Sedition Law (Section 124A)
The Supreme Court has recently underscored the need to review Section 124A (sedition) in the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Do you think that India needs a Sedition law framed in the pre-independence era? Justify your answer with relevant illustrations.
About Section 124A (sedition) in the Indian Penal Code (IPC):
● The Indian Penal Code defines sedition (Section 124A) as an offence committed when "any person 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".
● Disaffection includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity. However, comments without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, will not constitute an offence under this section.
● According to the data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), cases of sedition and under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act showed a rise in 2019, but only 3% of the sedition cases resulted in convictions.
Arguments in support of Section 124A:
● Section 124A of the IPC has its utility in combating anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements.
● It protects the elected government from attempts to overthrow the government with violence and illegal means. The continued existence of the government established by law is an essential condition of the stability of the State
● If contempt of court invites penal action, contempt of government should also attract punishment
● Many districts in different states face a Maoist insurgency and rebel groups virtually run a parallel administration. These groups openly advocate the overthrow of the state government by revolution. Against this backdrop, the abolition of Section 124A would be ill-advised merely because it has been wrongly invoked in some highly publicized cases
Arguments against the Section 124A:
● Against democratic values: In a healthy democracy, dissent and criticism of the government are necessary ingredients for lively public discourse. They should not be termed as sedition and blocked.
● Abuse of Sec 124: The blatant abuse of Sec 124 (in addition to Sec 144) to crackdown on political dissent has once again raised a clamour for scrapping it.
● Ambiguous definition: The phrases employed under Section 124A, such as “disaffection,” are ambiguous and can be interpreted differently depending on the set agenda of the ruling party.
● Repealed in modern democracy of the world: The British, who first used sedition to control Indians, have now repealed the same in their own country. Not only Britain, South Korea, Scotland, Indonesia and the US (struck down major parts) have also done away with this law.
● The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which establishes internationally accepted norms for the protection of freedom of expression, was ratified by India, and the misuse of section 124A goes against this.
● The IPC and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 2019 have provisions that penalise “disrupting the public order” or “overthrowing the government with violence and illegal means”. These are sufficient for protecting national integrity.
Important supreme court’s judgement:
● Kedar Nath Vs State of Bihar (1962):. A Constitution bench upheld the validity of the sedition law under IPC, holding that the purpose of the crime of sedition was to prevent the government established by law from being subverted because “the continued existence of the Government established by law is an essential condition of the stability of the State”.
● Maneka Gandhi case, 1978: The SC stated that criticizing and drawing general opinion against the Govt. policies and decisions within a reasonable limit that does not incite people to rebel is consistent with the freedom of speech.
● The Law Commission of India, in its consultation paper on sedition, published in August 2018, also observed that while retaining the offence of sedition was essential to protect national integrity, it should not be used as a tool to curb free speech.
Harmonizing freedom of expression with collective national interest is one of the key constituents of this law. However, dissent and criticism of the government are essential ingredients of healthy public debate in a vibrant democracy and they should not be construed as sedition.