Are we Indians becoming more and more seditious with each passing year? It would seem so considering the phenomenal rise in the cases being registered under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). In the year 2019 for instance 93 cases were registered under Section 124A of IPC as against just 30 in 2015, 35 in 2016 and 70 in 2018, writes RAJ KANWAR
What exactly is Sedition? As per Dictionary.com, Sedition is, “incitement of discontent or rebellion against a governmentby any action especially in speech or writing.”The Section 124Adefines Sedition more elaborately, “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 imprisonmentfor three years or for life, and with fine in either case.” Further, sedition is a non-bailable offence, and a person charged under this law becomes ineligible for a government job or even a passport.
Incidentally, Section 124A has had an interesting history. Initially, it was a part of the Section 113 introduced by the British historianThomas Macaulay in 1837. But for unknown reasons, it was then omitted from the actual Code; however, it was eventually added to the Code in 1870at the suggestion of James Stephen, a British judge and writer. Later, the Stephen’s version was also substantially changed via IPC Amendment Act of 1898;the present Act is very much similar to that Section.
Post-Independence,the Act went through quite a few alterations. A 1958 judgement by Allahabad High Court had declared the sedition law as ‘void’. But four years later in 1962, the Supreme Court restored the Act making it applicable only to cases involving ‘incitement to violence’. The Act was made cognizable in 1973 during Indira Gandhi’s tenure when the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) replaced the 1898 Code.
Four SC petitions
Currently, the Supreme Court is hearing four petitions challenging the validity and the very raison d’etre of Section 124A on sedition. A newspaper report says, “it would appear thattheSupreme Courtis prima facie convinced that the Sedition law is being misused by the authorities to trample upon the citizens’ fundamental rights of free speech and liberty.” Chief Justice NV Ramana said that the Court was sensitive to the public demand for judicially reviewing the manner in which the enforcement authorities were using the Sedition law in order to “control free speech and send journalists, activists and dissenters to jail, and keep them there”.
These remarks by the CJI came up in a petition filed by a senior journalist Sashi Kumar that had underscored “a dramatic jump by 165% since 2016 in the cases under the offence of seditionasindicated in a different context in the introductory paragraph. Worse, the charge sheetswere filed only in just about 17% of the cases, and even the conviction rate was dismally low at 3.3%. The reports by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) indicate that 21 cases of Sedition were closed in 2019 on account of lack of evidence, two for being false and six were held to be civil disputes.” Earlier in May, Justice DY Chandrachud had opined that, “it is time to define the limits of sedition.” He had flagged the indiscriminate use of the Sedition law against people who merely raised numerous grievances about the government mismanaging the Covid-19 pandemic, and the shortage of medical equipment, drugs, oxygen cylinders etc.
Another notable petition was by two TV channels, TV5 and ABN against the Andhra Pradesh government; the government had used the ‘Sedition law’ to ‘silence’the channels. A bench headed by CJI also issued a notice on 15th July on a petition filed by the Editors Guild of India that sought the quashing of the sedition law. Veteran journalist Arun Shourie has also challenged the constitutionality of this Section. Justice UU Lalit in another judgement quashed a Sedition case against the veteran journalist Vinod Dua for his alleged remarks about the Prime Minister and the Union government in a YouTube telecast, and upheld “the right of every journalist to criticise, even brutally, the various measures of the government with the object of improving or altering them via legal means.”
The fourth petition is by a retired army general SG Vombatkere, who has also challenged in the Supreme Court the constitutional validity of the law of sedition on the grounds that it has a’chilling effect’ on speech and as such posed ‘an unreasonable restriction’ on the fundamental right of free expression. It is not for the first time that this sedition law is being challenged; it had been challenged on numerous occasions in the past few years, but somehow it had miraculously managed to survive.
Kedar Nath Singh case
In 1953, Kedar Nath Singh, a member of the Forward Communist Party in Bihar, approached the Supreme Court against a Bihar High Court judgement that had upheld his conviction under Sections 124A and 505 (b)(Public mischief) of the IPC and sentenced him to one-year imprisonment. In his appeal, Kedar Nath Singh contended that the Section 124A was ‘inconsistent’with the ‘right to free speech and expression’ enshrined in Article 19(1) of the Constitution. In itslandmark judgement, the Apex Court had in 1962 surprisingly upheld its Constitutional validity saying “that it fell within the contours of being reasonable restrictions on free speech under Article 19(2), but at the same time it maintained that the mere criticism of the government unless accompanied by ‘an incitement or call for violence’ cannot be labelled as a ‘sedition’.”However, the Court in its wisdom concluded that the statement by Singh “was not seditious, and accordingly discharged him”.
There has been a phenomenal increase in sedition cases in the past few yearssince the BJP ruled state governments find this Section a convenient tool to arrest prominent journalists, sundry critics,protestorsand even ordinary citizens who dare make comments, even mildly critical of any act of commission or omission by the government. In particular, the trigger-happy policemen too frequently resort to Section 124A to silence inconvenientreporters, intellectuals or politicians. As recent as January 28, Sedition charges were slapped on several nationally known journalists, such as Rajdeep Sardesai, Mrinal Pande, Zafar Agha, and Paresh Nath for reporting that a farmer had died in police firing in Delhi on the
Republic Day. In a like manner, Shashi Tharoor, MP, too was booked for Sedition for his tweet that ‘a farmer had died in police firing’.
The Editors’ Guild of India has also condemned the ‘intimidating’ manner in which the cases were filed across five statesruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Journalists also condemned the ‘liberal use’ of the Sedition law at a meeting jointly organised by the Press Club of
India (PCI), the Editors’ Guild of India, the Press Association, the Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC), the Delhi Union of Journalists and the Indian Journalists Union. “Often, the punishment for criticism of the government has been the long and exhausting legal process itself, even though the Sedition charge does not stand the scrutiny of law,” they lamented. President of the Editor’s Guild Seema Mustafa wonders,“What kind of journalism can be practised in times like these?” She said, “These charges are meant not only to intimidate and harass the journalists but to also to terrorise professionals, to make them afraid to do their job.”
It is not the intent of this piece to dwell on the numerous cases that have been filed against journalists and other activists for merely criticising the government. But suffice it would be to say that the general consensus is that the ‘mere criticism of the government or dissent is not Sedition’, and as such outside the purview of Section 124A. The Apex Court is now expected to revisit its 1962 judgement that had upheld the Constitutional validity of Section 124A.
Raj Kanwar is a Dehra Dun-based veteran journalist, writer and author. Views are personal