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RECENT CONTROVERSIES AND DEBATES SURROUNDING SEDITION LAWS: BALANCING NATIONAL SECURITY AND FREE SPEECH

INTRODUCTION

Sedition laws have played an important role in the governance of societies throughout history, addressing acts or speech that incite violence, rebellion, or hatred against the state. These laws have changed over time to reflect how societies and their legal systems have changed. The question of whether sedition laws are compatible with contemporary democratic values and the protection of fundamental rights has become more pressing in recent years because of the intense scrutiny, criticism, and debate that has been focused on them. Sedition laws have their origins in earlier civilizations when rulers suppressed uprisings and dissent to preserve social order and defend their rule. These laws have been modified over the years to consider changing political, social, and technological environments.

The need to reevaluate the use of sedition laws in democratic societies has been raised by recent challenges and controversies that have revealed potential weaknesses and ethical implications.

Concerns about the abuse of sedition laws and their effects on freedom of expression have been raised by recent cases and controversies surrounding these laws. Sedition charges have been brought against activists, journalists, and regular people for holding divergent views, opposing the government’s policies, or promoting the rights of minorities. Sedition laws, according to opponents, are being used as tools to quash legal dissent and silence political rivals, restricting the diversity of viewpoints that democratic societies depend on.

WHAT IS SEDITION LAW?

Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deals with sedition, was drafted by Thomas Babington Macaulay and included in the IPC in 1870. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code stipulates punishments for “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.”[1]

Sedition laws are primarily intended to preserve the rule of law, safeguard national security, and preserve the stability and integrity of the state. Sedition laws typically make it illegal to engage in behaviour that is deemed to be against the rules of society or cast doubt on the legitimacy and power of the government. Advocating for the overthrow of the government, inciting violence or rebellion, inciting hatred or hostility towards a specific group or community or planning violent acts against the state are examples of such behaviour.

Between 2015 and 2020, 356 cases of sedition — as defined under Section 124A of the IPC–were registered and 548 people were arrested, according to data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). However, just 12 people arrested in seven sedition cases were convicted in the six years.[2]

RECENT CHALLENGES AND CRITICISM OF SEDITION LAW

The potential for those in positions of power to abuse and misapply sedition laws is one of the main problems with them. Sedition laws, according to their critics, are frequently used as tools for suppressing acceptable dissent, stifling political opposition, and silencing critical voices. Governments may use ambiguous or broad definitions of sedition to target people or organizations that hold views that are opposed to those of the governing regime. This abuse may discourage free speech by preventing people from participating in open discourse or expressing ideas that challenge the status quo.

Sedition laws have drawn criticism for their effects on free speech and the repression of dissent. Sedition laws can foster a culture of fear and self-censorship by making some types of speech or expressions of opinion illegal. People might be reluctant to express their opinions or participate in nonviolent protests because they run the risk of being accused of sedition. The democratic ideals of free speech, public discourse, and the capacity to hold the powerful accountable may be compromised by this. The application of sedition laws, according to critics, can stifle the free exchange of ideas and diversity of opinions that are essential to a healthy democracy.

The application of sedition laws has been made more difficult by the introduction of the digital age and the widespread use of social media platforms. People can now express this course and participate in political discourse and take part in social movements on online forums. However, given the permissive application of sedition laws, there may be worries about a potential restriction of free speech online.

COMPATIBILITY WITH MODERN DEMOCRATIC VALUES

  • The balance between ensuring national security and safeguarding fundamental rights like freedom of expression and dissent: Sedition laws must strike a careful balance between ensuring national security and safeguarding fundamental rights. It is crucial to assess whether sedition laws are necessary to preserve the integrity and stability of the country and to uphold the values of democracy and human rights.
  • Assessing the relevance and proportionality of sedition law: A critical evaluation of the relevance and proportionality of sedition laws is necessary considering contemporary democratic values. Laws should be regularly examined to see if they still meet modern societal demands and global human rights norms. Assessing these laws’ proportionality ensures that restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and dissent are appropriate and do not violate individuals’ rights.
  • Promoting open dialogue, diversity of opinions, and peaceful dissent: Modern democratic values place a strong emphasis on the value of open dialogue, the free exchange of ideas, and the acceptance of differing opinions within society. These values also encourage diversity of opinion and peaceful dissent. Sedition laws shouldn’t be applied to silence peaceful dissent or prevent people from voicing their opinions. Rather, as essential elements of a thriving democracy, democratic societies should promote an atmosphere that permits constructive criticism, robust debate, and the peaceful expression of opposing views.

CASE LAWS

The supreme court attempted to limit the potential for abuse of IPC 124A while upholding the constitutional validity of the statute in the 1962 case of Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar[3], The court ruled that criticism of the government cannot be classified as sedition unless it is accompanied by incitement or call for violence. If there is no incitement to violence or public disorder, simple criticism of the government or expressing strong opinions regardless of how unpopular or disapproving they may be does not constitute sedition. This ruling is regarded as a turning point in defining the guidelines and protections for the application of the sedition law in India.

In the case of Balwant Singh and Others v. State of Punjab[4], the Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that raising a slogan a few times without receiving any reaction or protest from the public is not punishable by such a penalty. The court ruled that the act or words that incite violence, cause public disorder, or disturb social peace and tranquillity constitute sedition. Sedition is not considered to exist unless there is a direct incitement to violence or public disorder. Mere strong criticism or disapproval of the government or its policies is not considered sedition. The ruling emphasized the value of safeguarding dissent and freedom of speech in democratic societies and issued a warning against the abuse of sedition laws to stifle honest expressions of opinion.

CONCLUSION

The difficulties and objections to sedition laws call for a thorough evaluation of their suitability with contemporary democratic ideals. It is crucial to strike the proper balance between upholding national security and safeguarding fundamental rights. Sedition laws can be more closely aligned with democratic ideals through reforms that support precise definitions, proportional application, and strong safeguards against abuse. Democratic societies can uphold the fundamental principles of free speech, protect dissenting voices, and foster an environment that promotes open discussion, diversity of opinions, and the advancement of democratic ideals by reevaluating these laws considering changing social contexts and technological advancements.

Author(s) Name: Janvi Shukla (Amity University)

References:

[1] Jeanine Cali, Sedition Law in India, (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, BLOGS 1 Oct 2012) https://blogs.loc.gov/law/2012/10/sedition-law-in-india/ accessed 10 June 2023

[2] PTI, Supreme Court to hear pleas challenging constitutional validity of sedition law, (The Hindu, 8 January 2023)

https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/supreme-court-to-hear-pleas-challenging-constitutional-validity-of-sedition-law/article66354195.ece accessed on 10 June 2023

[3] Kedar Nath Singh v State of Bihar [1962] SC AIR 955 (SC)

[4] Balwant Singh and others v State of Punjab [1995] 3SCC 214 (SC)