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Sedition Law As A Litmus Test For Constitutionality

Context

The Supreme Court of India will hear a slew of petitions challenging the colonial-era penal law on sedition.

Relevance

GS Paper-2: Indian Constitution—significant provisions and basic structure; Judicial review, functioning of the Judiciary

Mains Question

Although the provision of sedition is contrary to the spirit of the Constitution, it has helped to preserve the nation’s integrity and sovereignty, please explain. Is it prudent to repeal the sedition provisions of the IPC, which are utilised to silence democratic voices? (250 words)


Background 

  • Last year, the Supreme Court suspended the penal law against sedition until a “appropriate” government forum re-examined it.
  • It also ordered the Centre and the states not to file any new FIRs in connection with the offence.
  • In 1962, the Supreme Court upheld the law’s validity while attempting to limit its scope for abuse.
  • Recent cases of individuals being charged with sedition [under IPC Section 124A] have refocused attention on a law introduced in the Indian Penal Code in 1870.
  • The fact that this law is frequently used to suppress dissent calls into question its current relevance.
    • Because governments have used the law over the years to impose reasonable restrictions on free speech, as provided in Article 19(2) of the Constitution.

About the Sedition Law

  • The Indian penal code was originally drafted on the recommendations of the first law commission of India, which was established in 1834 under the Charter Act of 1833 and chaired by Thomas Babington Macaulay.
    • Section 124A of the Penal Code was added in 1870 as a specific section to deal with the offence by an amendment introduced by Sir James Stephen.
    • Sedition was added to the IPC as an offence under section 124A in 1890 by Special Act XVII.
  • Section 124A of the IPC defines sedition as follows:
    • Under the sedition law, anyone who attempts to incite hatred, contempt, or disdain for the government is punishable.
    • Disaffection encompasses disloyalty as well as all feelings of enmity.
  • Punishment in accordance with Section 124A o Sedition is a non-bailable offence.
    • Imprisonment for three years to life, plus a fine.
    • The person charged under this law is also barred from holding a government job, and the government seizes their passport.

Relevant Supreme Court decisions on Sedition

  • In the case of Kedar Nath Singh vs. State of Bihar (1962), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the sedition law.
    • When dealing with offences, established some guiding principles.
    • The court ruled that comments—however strongly worded—expressing disapproval of the government’s actions without causing public disorder through acts of violence would not be punished.
  • In the case of P. Alavi vs. State of Kerala (1982), the court ruled that sloganeering, criticism of the legislature, or criticism of the judicial system did not amount to sedition.
  • In the case of Balwant Singh vs. State of Punjab (1995), the Supreme Court ruled that simply shouting slogans (in this case, Khalistan Zindabad) does not constitute sedition.
    • And thus, declared that ‘the sedition law is being both misunderstood and misused to muzzle dissent’.

Criticism regarding the Sedition Act

  • In the United Kingdom, the sedition law became obsolete in the 1960s and was repealed in 2009.
    • Opponents of the law argue that if the country that imposed the law on India has already repealed the given law, why is India continuing with it?
  • Singapore, like India, inherited the Sedition law from Britain but repealed it, stating that a set of new laws can adequately address issues that were covered by the Sedition law.

The law must be reexamined

  • According to estimates, the number of cases of sedition under Section 124A increased by 140% between 2016 and 2019.
  • The conviction rate fell to 3.3% in 2019 from 33.3% in 2016.
  • In the age of the Internet, what can cause public disorder has become debatable, as information travels at breakneck speed.
  • The offence of sedition was repealed in the United Kingdom in 2010, and India is clinging to a relic of the British Empire.
  • Even as recently as 2018, the Law Commission of India questioned the legality of retaining Section 124A.
  • Rather than a content-based test that reviews the text alone, which appears to be flawed, the provision examines the effects of the seditious text.

Concerns Regarding Sedition Provisions

  • Contrary to the spirit of the constitution o Criticism of a government is not the same as inciting “disaffection towards the government” or rebellion against it.
    • It is a tool for limiting citizens’ freedom of speech and expression. • It is inconsistent with globally accepted practises.
  • Against civil liberties o Suppresses what every citizen in a democracy should do—raise questions, debate, disagree, and challenge the government’s decisions.
    • Because the crime is non-bailable, non-cognizable, and punishment can be life in prison, this law has a strong deterrent effect on dissent even if it is not used.
  • Retention is unjustified and subject to abuse.
    • The Law Commission of India stated in its consultation paper that maintaining the offence of sedition was necessary to protect national integrity.
    • Terms used in Section 124A, such as “disaffection,” are ambiguous and subject to the whims and fancies of the investigating officers.

The way forward

  • The Kedar Nath guidelines principles of the Supreme Court must also be incorporated in Section 124A by amending the IPC so that any ambiguity is removed.
  • Seditious actions/words are those that directly result in the use of violence or incitement to violence.
  • The state police must be sufficiently guided as to where the section must and must not be imposed.
  • It is necessary to include provisions that allow the government to be penalised if the section is abused.
  • This will ensure that Section 124 A of the IPC strikes a balance between state security and the fundamental right to free speech and expression.

 


February 2023
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