Context: The Supreme Court quashed case of sedition filed against a journalist for allegedly making remarks against the Prime Minister.
- The court also reiterated the principles in the landmark case on sedition — Kedar Nath Singh v Union of India (1962).
- The journalist had criticised the Prime Minister and the Centre for the handling of the migrant crisis last year.
- One person filed a case of sedition against him under Section 124A of the IPC penalises sedition as punishable with either imprisonment ranging from three years to a lifetime, a fine, or both.
- The journalist approached the Supreme Court for quashing the FIR against him.
- Center’s stand:
- The journalist had attempted to spread misinformation or incorrect information and cause panic in the perception of the general public.
- Both the state and the Centre argued against quashing the FIR because the state wanted to investigate whether such statements were “deliberate” or “unintended and innocent assertions”.
Key points of SC judgment
- It held that his remarks constituted genuine criticism of the government and could not be labelled seditious.
- Every Journalist will be entitled to protection in terms of Kedar Nath Singh judgment of SC.
- Every prosecution under Sections 124A and 505 of the IPC must be in strict conformity with the scope and ambit of said Sections as explained in Kedar Nath Singh case.
What is Sedition law and what does it say in the Indian Penal Code?
The law was originally drafted by Thomas Macaulay. It was introduced in the IPC in the 1870 to deal with "increasing anti British Wahabi activities.
Section 124A of the IPC defines sedition. It makes some kinds of speech or expression a criminal offence punishable with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The Sedition law can be applied if the speeches or expressions
- bring or attempt to bring into hatred or contempt, or
- excite or attempt to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India.
Cognizable and Non-bailable offence
- It is classified as “cognisable” — the investigation process (including the powers to arrest) can be triggered merely by filing an FIR, without a judicial authority having to take cognisance —
- It is also qualified as “non-bailable” — the accused cannot get bail as a matter of right, but is subject to the discretion of the sessions judge.
Incidents of use of sedition law
- The law was first used to prosecute Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1897.
- In 1929, Mahatma Gandhi wrote a stirring editorial in Young India calling for a countrywide agitation demanding the repeal of Section 124A. The section, said Gandhi, constituted ‘a rape of the word “law”’; it ‘hung over our heads’ whether ‘we are feasting or fasting’.
- In the year 2014, some of the Kashmiri students were charged with sedition for supporting Pakistan in a cricket match between India and Pakistan.
- Recently many student leaders and many others have been slapped with sedition charges.
Supreme Court guidelines
The Kedar Nath Singh case guidelines: In the landmark 1962 Kedar Nath Singh case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the sedition law.
- Conditions imposed: The court held that unless accompanied by an incitement or call for violence, criticism of the government cannot be labelled sedition.
- Seven principles in the Kedar Nath Singh ruling specify situations in which the charge of sedition cannot be applied.
- The expression “ ‘the Government established by law’ has to be distinguished from the persons for the time being engaged in carrying on the administration.
- ‘Government established by law’ is the visible symbol of the State.
- The very existence of the State will be in jeopardy if the Government established by law is subverted.”
- “Any acts within the meaning of Section 124-A which have the effect of subverting the Government by bringing that Government into contempt or hatred, or creating disaffection against it, would be within the penal statute.
- The feeling of disloyalty to the Government established by law or enmity to it imports the idea of tendency to public disorder by the use of actual violence or incitement to violence.”
- Genuine criticism and excitement of violence: “A citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the Government.
- Condition: But he should not incite people to violence against the Government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder.”
- Creating disorder/ disturbing public peace: If the words, written or spoken can create public disorder or disturbance of law and order then the sedition law will be applicable.
- Limiting the use of law: Only activities involving incitement to violence or intention or tendency to create public disorder or cause disturbance of public peace comes under the ambit of Sedition law.”
In Balwant Singh v State of Punjab, 1995, the Supreme Court acquitted persons from charges of sedition for shouting slogans such as “Khalistan Zindabaad” outside a cinema after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The Court held that mere sloganeering which evoked no public response did not amount to sedition.
Why sedition act should be abolished
- The law clashes with the right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. It is not even part of the "reasonable restrictions" on free speech under Article 19(2).
- Muzzling dissent: Centre and the States have invoked the section against activists, writers etc. to silence political dissent by accusing dissenters of promoting disaffection.
- Vague terminology: Its use of vague terms such as “bringing (government) into hatred or contempt” and “disloyalty and all feelings of enmity” continues to help the police to invoke it whenever there is either strong criticism or critical depiction of unresponsive or insensitive rulers.
- Low conviction: The NCRB data show that 93 sedition cases were filed in 2019, up from 70 in 2018 and 51 in 2017. Many of these cases did not involve violence or incitement to violence. But only 3 percent of the sedition cases resulted in convictions.
- Sedition is not mentioned in the Constitution: India’s Constituent Assembly was of the opinion that for the minorities in particular, it is important to have association and free speech so that they can make their voices heard by the Government. The essence of democracy is criticism of the Government.
Why should the Sedition law not be abolished?
- Security purpose: There is a need to retain the provision to effectively combat anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements.
- SC has upheld the sedition law: In Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar (1962), the SC upheld the law on the basis that this power was required by the state to protect itself.
- In its 1968 report , the Law Commission had rejected the idea of repealing the section.
- The sedition law should not be abolished as some measurements are needed to check communal violence & insurgency activities like naxals.
- Reexamination by courts: The court also needs to examine the classification of the offence of sedition as cognisable and non-bailable.
- Stricter and clear conditions for invocation: Invocation of the section should only be in cases of slogans or statements which incite violence and have a manifest tendency to create public disorder.
- Following Kedarnath verdict: The SC has directed all authorities to scrupulously follow the Kedarnath verdict. It should be followed by all the courts.
- The right remedy is to educate our law enforcement agencies and impress upon them that incitement to violence is the indispensable prerequisite for invoking Section 124-A.
- Misuse of the sedition law should attract appropriate penalties for law enforcement agencies coupled with a provision for compensation to the injured party.
There is a need to go into the aspect of political motivation behind the police registering FIRs. The Court’s verdict brightens the hope that the section’s validity will be re-examined.