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What is sedition law? Why has Centre decided to re-examine it?

The Supreme Court has been hearing a clutch of pleas challenging the validity of the law on sedition which has been under intense public scrutiny for its alleged misuse to settle political scores by various governments. Today, the apex court asked the Central government to apprise it about the views on the issue of protection of interest of citizens till the colonial-era penal law on sedition is reconsidered by an appropriate forum.

The pleas filed by the Editors Guild of India and Major General (Retired) S.G. Vombatkere state that the law causes a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech and is an unreasonable restriction on free expression, a fundamental right.

The SC had first issued a notice to the Centre in July 2021 about the challenge to the legality of Section 124A Indian Penal Code (IPC), which criminalises sedition. Later, on April 27, 2022, Supreme Court fixed May 5 for the final hearing of the petitions, stating that it will not brook any delay in the form of requests for adjournment.

As the issue over sedition has intensified and come under fire in Supreme Court, here’s you need to know about the law:

What is sedition law?

The penal law on sedition was drafted by British historian-politician Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1837. In the provisions of the law, sedition was defined as an act by “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.”

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the colonial British government primarily used the sedition charge, which was included in Section 124 A of the Indian penal code in 1870, to suppress the writings and speeches of Indian nationalists and freedom fighters to crush dissent.

As per section 124A, sedition is a non-bailable offence, punishable with imprisonment from three years up to life, along with a fine. The person charged under this law is also barred from a government job and their passport is seized by the government. Incidentally, the sedition charge was abolished by the United Kingdom in 2010.

What is the Supreme Court’s stance on it?

In July 2021, Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana had observed, “Sedition is a colonial law. It suppresses freedoms. It was used against Mahatma Gandhi, Tilak… Is this law necessary after 75 years of Independence?” He said this addressing Attorney General K.K. Venugopal and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Central government.

He added, “If you look at the history of use of this Section 124A of IPC, you will find that the conviction rate is very low. There is misuse of power by executive agencies.”

However, in the 1962 Kedar Nath case the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of section 124A of IPC.

The 1962 order stated, “Continued existence of the Government established by law is an essential condition of the stability of the State. That is why ‘sedition’, comes under Chapter VI relating to offences against the State. Hence any acts within the meaning of Section 124-A which have the effect of subverting the Government by bringing that Government into contempt or hatred, or creating disaffection against it, would be within the penal statute.”

Some recent cases of the sedition charge being invoked:

  • Against environmental activist Disha Ravi, for sharing a ‘toolkit’ for a global online campaign supporting the farmers’ protest

  • Activists Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Hany Babu, Anand Teltumbde, Shoma Sen, Gautam Navlakha, Surendra Gadling, late Father Stan Swamy, Arun Ferreira, Rona Wilson, Mahesh Raut and Sudhir Dhawale, for speeches at an Elgaar Parishad meeting ahead of the violence in Bhima Koregaon on the occasion of the bicentennial anniversary of the 1818 battle.

  • Against activists Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Gulfisha Khatoon, Ishrat Jahan, Safoora Zargar and Meeran Haider, for alleged inflammatory remarks at anti-CAA meetings and ‘premeditated conspiracy’ to create riots in Delhi in February 2020.

Latest update on sedition law issue:

The Supreme Court today asked the Centre to consider issuing a directive to the state governments to keep the operation of the sedition provision, Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, in abeyance till the process of review of the provision is over and gave 24 hours to the Centre to inform it about its decision in the matter.

A bench headed by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana and comprising Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, that cases are pending and cited Attorney General submissions on the misuse of sedition law over the recitation of ‘Hanuman Chalisa’.

The bench said till the government completes the process of re-examining the sedition law, could it issue a directive to the state governments to keep the operation of the law in abeyance. The top court emphasized that it is essential to protect people from the misuse of the sedition law.

(with agency inputs)

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Published on: Tuesday, May 10, 2022, 05:23 PM IST

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