SEDITION- PERSECUTING ANTI- NATIONAL FEELINGS OR PERSECUTING POLITICAL DISSENT? Preyoshi Bhattacharjee, 4th Year

“To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

– Voltaire

Does the above quote still stand true? This is a question that I have been asking myself and it may not be completely true in the current scenario because this quote had its origin in the 1600s where monarchs existed and even the slightest of irreverence was answered with the chopping off the head of the rebel. But considering we are in the 21st century and living in a democratic state are we yet there? Can we say confidently that there is not even a single person who is scared to criticize or put forth their own opinion regarding the working of the government? The answer to this is very obvious.

The root of this problem lies in certain provisions of law, which have been used or rather misused by every ruling government. One such law is the law of sedition, as provided in Section 124A of IPC, it 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 fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”

The first thing that is contradictory about the law of sedition is that it was the British who introduced this section through an amendment in the year 1870 because it was not a part of the original IPC, it was introduced to suppress the revolutionary voices advocating independence from British raj at that time. However, a lot has changed since then and even the UK removed the law of sedition in the year 2009, but we are continuing with it. During the debate on the matter, Claire Ward, the Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, UK stated that –

Sedition and seditious and defamatory libel are arcane offences – from a bygone era when freedom of expression wasn’t seen as the right it is today… The existence of these obsolete offences in this country had been used by other countries as justification for the retention of similar laws which have been actively used to suppress political dissent and restrict press freedom… Abolishing these offences will allow the UK to take a lead in challenging similar laws in other countries, where they are used to suppress free speech.”

Considering that we live in a democracy, where the freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, the language of the section comes out as very restrictive. The controversy began, when during peaceful protests where people started to oppose any move of the Government, they were booked for sedition even though no breach of public order took place, on the pretext that it was an attempt to do so, and was justified under Section 124A. Even the Constitutionality of this section has been challenged several times, the most recent and landmark judgment being, Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar[1] where the apex court upheld the validity of the section but held that a balance needs to be established between Section 124A and Article 19(1)(a). Thus, only those words, signs etc. which will incite public disorder or which have a tendency to incite public disorder can be punished and not every act which shows dissatisfaction. But according to my humble opinion, even this judgement was given in the year 1962 and around 59 years have passed. There is a dire need to reconsider this judgement. Another major question being, do we even need this section, when there are other provisions and statutes which can deal with such acts, for example Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 or provisions for detention etc.? Even if we look at the data of 2019 as given by National Crime Record Bureau, it indicates a 165% rise in the cases filed under sedition as compared to 2016 while the conviction rate in the year 2019 was merely 3.3%. Section 124A is not a very happily worded section. It is vague and has, thus, been misused. Even the Law Commission of India in 2018 published a consultation paper where the revision of Section 124A was suggested. Protection of national integrity and public order is necessary but it should not be used as a mere tool to curb the freedom of speech and expression which include criticism of any act of the government as that is an integral part of democracy. Thus, the implementation of the above section should be done carefully and there is a need for judicial intervention to lay proper guidelines so that we can put an end to its misuse.  


Reference:

[1] 1962 AIR 945.

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