Sedition Law

Context: The Law Commission of India in its 279th report, released in April 2023, has recommended the retention of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code which contains the Law of Sedition.
Probable Question: Q. Discuss India’s sedition law in light of recommendations of the Law Commission.
Background: 
  • The Law Commission received a reference from the Home Ministry in March, 2016, to study the usage of the provision of Section 124A and suggest amendments.
  • The Law Commission said the existence of laws such as Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and the National Security Act (NSA) does not by implication cover all elements of the offence envisaged under Section 124A of the IPC.
About Sedition Law:
  • History: Section 124A was incorporated in the Indian Penal Code in 1870. The purpose was to suppress the voice of Indians who spoke against the British Raj, as the government did not want any voice of dissent or protest
  • Section 124A IPC: It defines the crime as bringing into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India.
  • Punishment: Imprisonment for life, to which a fine may be added; or imprisonment which may extend to three years or with fine.
Validity of Sedition Law:
  • Kedarnath vs State of Bihar case (1962): The Supreme Court has decided the constitutionality of sedition. The Court held that it is constitutionally valid for two reasons.
    • Sedition, though an offence against the government, is against the state because the government is a visible symbol of state and the existence of the state will be in jeopardy if the government is subverted.
    • Article 19(2) imposes restrictions in the interest of the security of the state which has wider amplitude and which includes the law on sedition.
    • Restriction on misuse: The Supreme Court laid down that every citizen has a right to say or write about the government, by way of criticism or comment, as long as it does not incite people to violence against the government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder.
  • Supreme Court judgement in Balwant Singh vs State of Punjab case: Casual raising of slogans, once or twice by two individuals alone cannot be said to be aimed at exciting or attempt to excite hatred or disaffection by the government.
  • Disha A. Ravi Vs State (NCT of Delhi) 2021: The Delhi High Court expressed that citizens cannot be put behind bars simply because they disagree with the state policies.
Recommendations of Law Commission: 
  • Definition of Tendency to Incite Violence: The report also defines tendency to incite violence as a “mere inclination to incite violence or cause public disorder rather than proof of actual violence or imminent threat to violence.”
  • Enhanced Punishment for Tendency to Incite Violence: The Law Commission has also recommended enhanced punishment for this offence in the name of national security.
    • The commission recommends a minimum imprisonment of seven years.
  • Procedural Safeguard: To prevent misuse of the law, the report suggested including a procedural safeguard that no FIR shall be registered for sedition unless a police officer, not below the rank of Inspector, conducts a preliminary inquiry.
Reasons given to retain sedition law:
  • It was necessary to retain it as it was useful in countering the threat to India’s internal security. 
  • The Commission also felt that the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967, does not cover all elements of the offence envisaged under Section 124A IPC.
Need of parameters for the invocation of Section 124A:
  • The Bombay High Court in 2015 referred to the Kedarnath judgment and said there was a need to lay down parameters for the invocation of Section 124A.
  • In absence of parameters, a situation would result in which an unrestricted recourse to Section 124A would result in a serious encroachment of guarantee of personal liberty conferred upon every citizen of a free society.
Argument in Favour of Sedition Law:
  • Ensure National Security:
    • Counter threats to internal security.
    • Combat anti-national, secessionist, and terrorist elements.
    • Protect the stability of the state and the elected government.
  • Reasonable Restrictions on Freedom of Speech:
    • The constitution of India permits reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution.
    • Prevent the abuse of freedom of speech and expression.
  • Complementing the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA):
    • Sedition law covers elements not addressed by the UAPA.
    • Providing a comprehensive legal framework to tackle offences against the state.
Criticism of Sedition Law:
  • Colonial legacy: The law of sedition in India has a long and infamous history. The purpose was to suppress the voice of Indians who spoke against the British Raj, as the government did not want any voice of dissent or protest.
  • Existence of other laws for national security: There are several counter-terror legislations that could adequately take care of threats against the state.
  • Use against political opponents: Sedition is frequently invoked to punish political speech or action.
  • Misused by the law enforcement authorities: Supreme Court in S.G. Vombatkere vs Union of India case in 2022, had ordered a stay on all existing proceedings and also on the registration of fresh cases under sedition.
    • The Court’s stay order was in consideration of the fact that this law was wide.
  • Fundamental right to freedom of speech: A democratic republic where people have the freedom to change a bad government, disaffection towards a government cannot be an offence. In fact, it is a part of the democratic process and experience.
Way Forward:
  • The classification of the offence of sedition as cognizable and non-bailable needs to be considered.
  • Strict guidelines need to be issued with regard to sedition law in order to safeguard the freedom of speech and expression in a democratic country like India.
  • Magistracy and police should be sensitised to the constitutional provisions protecting free speech.
  • An effective legal framework against hate speech is what is needed more than one to penalise speech or writing that targets the government.
Additional Information: About Law Commission of India:
  • The Law Commission is a non-statutory body constituted by the GoI, every three years.
  • Its major function is to work for legal reform and works as an advisory body to the Ministry of Law and Justice.
  • The first Law Commission was established during the British era in 1834 by the Charter Act of 1833 and was presided over by Lord Macaulay.
  • However, the first Law Commission of Independent India was constituted in 1955 with M. C. Setalvad, as its Chairman.
 News Source: The Hindu

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