What is Sedition?

“Graver the offence, greater should be the care taken so that the liberty of a citizen is not lightly interfered with.” – Supreme Court

In order to understand the meaning of sedition, one needs to look into Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

It states 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 Government estab­lished by law, 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 explanation to the Section states that ‘Disaffection’ means disloyalty and feelings of enmity.

History of Sedition:

Sedition law has its origin in the colonial era. The Indian Penal Code, 1860 was originally framed by First Law Commission chaired by Thomas Babington Macaulay. It did not have Section 124A as one of its provisions.

The British introduced sedition it in 1870 to reprimand dissenting voices from freedom fighters, media etc.

In 1898, the scope was expanded to include hatred and contempt along with disaffection.

Pre-Independence Case Laws:

One of the very first cases of Sedition was against Bal Gangadhar Tilak in the case Queen Empress v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, wherein Judge Stratchey explained that,

“The offence consists in exciting or attempting to excite in others certain bad feelings towards the government. It is not the exciting or attempting to excite mutiny or rebellion or any sort of actual disturbance, great or small. Whether any disturbance or outbreak was caused by these articles is absolutely immaterial.”

In Niharendu Dutt Majumdar v. King Emperor, the Federal Court in 1942 held that, mere criticism of government or even abusive language cannot be considered sedition. Unless the words incite violence, it is not sedition.

However, this was over ruled by the Privy Council in 1947 in King Emperor v. Sadashiv Narayan Bhaleraowherein the Court upheld the ratio laid down in the Tilak Case and observed that the excitement of ‘feelings of enmity’ towards the Government is sufficient to charge one with sedition.

Post Independence Case Laws:

In 1962, a case of sedition was filed against Kedarnath. The issue addressed by the Supreme Court was whether Section 124A of the IPC is violative of Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and expression.

The court passed held that Section 124A does not violate Article 19(1)(a). The reason being any law that is enacted in the interest of public order may be saved from the voice of constitutional invalidity. However, the court reiterated the ratio held in Niharendu Dutt, observing that unless the words incite violence, it cannot be sedition.

Going by this, Kedarnath should have been acquitted as his speech did not incite anyone to violence or to overthrow the government. Yet, the court upheld the conviction of Kedarnath.

Therefore, in practice, courts have time and again supported the ratio laid down by the Privy Council instead of the Supreme Court.

The government has regrettably sustained a provision that was used to cripple the voices of citizens in the colonial era.

In fact, in 1997 in Bilal Ahmed Kaloo v. State of Andhra Pradesh, the Supreme Court was of the opinion that Mechanical order convicting a citizen for offences of such serious nature like sedition and to promote enmity and hatred etc. does harm to the cause. It is expected that graver the offence, greater should be the care taken so that the liberty of a citizen is not lightly interfered with.’

Recent Sedition Charges:

Yet, citizens of India have been charged with sedition in quick succession for issues such as provocative cartoon, for cheering the cricket team of a rival nation.

(a) In fact in 2012-13, thousands of people were charged with sedition for protesting against Kudankulam nuclear power plant. This was when not a single incident of violence was instituted.

kundalulam nuclear power plant, power plant, rally, sedition

Picture Courtesy: Flickr

(b) In 2014, Kashmiri students in Uttar Pradesh were charged with sedition for cheering for the Pakistani cricket team in the Asia Cup match between India and Pakistan. The Uttar Pradesh government later dropped the charges following the advice of the Law Ministry.

Sure, it is something that would leave majority of us fuming considering how touchy the topic is, but is it fair to charge them with something as grave as ‘an attempt to incite disaffection towards the government?’ 

(c) In 2015, sedition charge was invoked against Hardik Patel for inciting his fellow activist to beat up or kill Gujarat policemen instead of committing suicide.

His counsel, Kapil Sibal said that Patel made this statement in private at his residence. However, the statement was recorded by the media and distributed among channels. Also, the sedition charge was framed 15 days after the statement was made even though it had not disturbed any public order.

(d) In 2016, Delhi Police filed sedition charges against Kanhaiya Kumar for shouting anti-national slogans which was later dropped as they did not have evidence to prove their claims.

The Delhi High Court bench questioned the police as to why they did not file charges on the same day and waited for the footage to be aired on Zee TV. They said that participating in a protest is different from shouting anti-national slogans.


Sedition Charges against Ramya, Actress and Politician:

Most recently, actor and politician, Divya Spandana also known as Ramya was slapped with sedition charges for refuting Defence Minister’s comment saying Pakistan is not hell. She made this statement during the rally in her constituency, Mandya. The government’s over reaction on Ramya’s comment is rather baleful as her comment does nothing to incite hatred or disaffection towards India by any stretch of imagination.

Praising the people of enemy nation or commenting on issues that are in discourse is not seditious. Slapping anyone having contradictory opinion on a subject with sedition, is a pretty indiscreet way of implementing a law that is as serious as sedition.  In fact, long standing issues such as India-Pakistan ties must be subject to debate in order to find an amicable solution. Subduing such talks by asserting it to be anti-national further hobbles the cause.

Therefore, it is critical for India to review its sedition law, before people’s right to free speech is further hamstrung.

Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia

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