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Sedition with respect to Freedom of Speech and Expression- Indian Scenario

Introduction –

A democratic nation ceases to flourish if there is no criticism. Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code mentions defines sedition which seeks to punish people who dare to raise their voices against the government. It states that any word which is either written or spoken or any signs or any visual representation etc, attempts to bring or bring hatred/contempt or excites or such an attempt to excite dissatisfaction against the Government established by law constitutes sedition. The then Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana on the 12th of July, 2021 questioned the existence of this sedition law which was imposed in the colonial era. This along with various landmark judgments of the apex courts has ignited various discussions and debates around the existence of this law as well as rising incidents of injustice by the state.

Origin and Evolution –

Sedition law was drafted by Thomas Macaulay in the year 1837, although sedition law was first introduced in the year 1860 with the implementation of the IPC to crush the freedom movement by suppressing the voice of leaders who criticized the policies of the British government in India. It was implemented mainly in response to the Wahabi movement through which autonomy and more freedoms were demanded. In the early twentieth century, this law was mainly used against freedom fighters like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi who raised their voices and as a result were imprisoned.

Inclusion in the Indian Constitution?

Sedition was mentioned in the draft copy of the Indian Constitution under Article 13 (2).  Due to the augmented arguments of K.M. Munshi and Sikh leader Bhupinder Singh in the constituent assembly, the word ‘sedition’ was kept out of the Indian Constitution. Although it was implemented again in the very controversial first constitutional amendment by way of imposing restrictions on Article 19 (1) (a) through the enactment of Article 19 (2). Article 19 (2) was given a retrospective effect. Reasonable restrictions can be imposed if it is in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state,  friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency, or morality. This also includes other reasons for imposing reasonable restrictions like defamation, contempt of court as well as incitement to an offence.  It was amended later and now it does not mention the word ‘sedition’, although it empowers the government to impose reasonable restrictions on the Freedom of Speech and Expression.

Shortcomings of the law –

  • The biggest shortcoming of this law is that it is cognizable (arrest can be made without the need for a warrant) and non-bailable (bail can not be granted) and if a person is convicted, a maximum punishment of life imprisonment along with fines can be imposed. The point is that the provision is too harsh, and vague and the punishments mentioned are not justified.
  • The main objective behind bringing this law into force is to protect the sovereignty and integrity of the nation in rare instances. Although data depicts a rising number of sedition cases which showcases that this provision is used as a weapon against rivals for politically motivated reasons and to suppress the voice of citizens so that they don’t take a stand against the government. This was highlighted in the landmark Kedar Nath judgment of 1962.
  • In recent times, sedition cases have skyrocketed and on the other hand, the conviction rate is very less. The data released by the National Crime Records Bureau highlights that out of the 405 cases filed in the past decade, more than 96 % of cases were filed after the year 2014 with a conviction rate of less than 3 %. Hence it is only fair to interpret that most of the cases are filed with malafide

Misinterpretation of the provision:

The framework of Section 124 (a)  IPC is obsolete and poorly structured which results in multiple vague interpretations. Various phrases under the section like ‘bring into hatred or contempt and attempt to excite dissatisfaction’ can include multiple kinds of acts but do not necessarily constitute sedition. This allows the state authorities and the executive to harass people who are innocent and living on the other side of the fence. This loophole in the provision is often leveraged by the police to falsely accuse innocent people. Acts that constitute sedition and acts which do not constitute sedition should be defined to avoid this mishap from happening in the future.

Landmark cases and outcomes –

  • For the very first time, the legitimacy of this law was challenged in the year 1951 in the landmark case of Tara Singh Gopi Chand V. State. The then Punjab High Court stated that Article 19 (1) (a) was violated as Section 124 (A) IPC is ultra vires of the Indian Constitution.
  • The constitutional validity of the sedition law was challenged again. The Allahabad High Court judgment was overruled by the apex court in the landmark case of Kedar Nath Singh V. State of Bihar (1962) by stating that one cannot be held for sedition until the act becomes a likely cause of violence. The judgment was based on the reasoning that it was essential for the security and integrity of the state to place this reasonable restriction in view of Article 19 (2) of the Indian Constitution and hence, section 124 A was held intra vires of the constitution.
  • The apex court in another landmark case of Balwant Singh V. State of Punjab held that if no violence has occurred on record, then even raising slogans like ‘Khalistan Zindabad, Raj Karega Khalsa’ does not constitute sedition. These slogans were raised by the accused after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The court reasoned their judgement by stating that a key aspect to constitute sedition is that it should raise or incite people to take violent actions which were missing in the present case. Hence, they were acquitted.
  • The apex court has reaffirmed this stance various times in cases like Common Cause V. Union of India in 2018 and Bilal Ahmed Kaloo v. State of Andhra Pradesh (1997). It was reiterated to strictly follow the guidelines set out in the Kedar Nath case. Merely criticizing government policies does not constitute sedition.

Freedom of Speech and Expression –

Freedom of speech and expression entails the freedom to talk as well as the right to express oneself through any medium – words, writing, images, signage, the internet, and so on. Every person has the right to an opinion and the ability to express it, as well as the freedom to absorb and transmit information. ‘Freedom of Speech and Expression’ can be interpreted in various ways. It encompasses the freedom to spread ideas, as well as their publishing and distribution. Freedom of speech and expression inculcates various facets as stated by the apex court through various landmark judgments in addition to the ones mentioned under Article 19 (1) (a) of the constitution. It includes freedom of the press, right to reply, right to obtain information, right to know the antecedents of the candidates at the election, right to silence etc.

Is your freedom of speech and expression curbed? (A threat to Indian Democracy) :

One of the most important criteria (in the test of restrictions) to impose restrictions on the Freedom of Speech and Expression is that the restriction imposed should be reasonable. This is where the law of sedition fails to meet the criteria of what constitutes a reasonable restriction. In recent times, protesting voices were curbed by arresting Vinod Dua (an NDTV journalist) for criticizing the government for poorly handling the coronavirus pandemic. In the Greta Thunberg toolkit case, a 22-year-old was arrested for a tweet that was related to the farmer’s agitation in India. On the 30th of August, 2018, the Law Commission of India released its paper titled ‘Consultation paper on Sedition’ in which it was stated that the existence of the offence of sedition was integral to protecting Indian sovereignty and that free speech should not be curbed.

Conclusion –

The right to freedom of expression is the cornerstone of a democratic state, and it is under imminent threat because of the sedition provision in the Indian Penal Code.  Citizens in a democratic state must proactively engage in discussions and offer constructive criticism of any decisions taken by the government. Nevertheless, the sedition laws have allowed the executive to utilize the vaguely worded clause as a weapon to control public sentiment and arbitrarily wield authority. The sedition legislation has evolved into a mechanism for instilling in individuals a spirit of solidarity with the government policies as the government may disregard its critics and prosecute them with sedition, which diminishes government accountability.

Author(s) Name: Tanish Pankaj Amin (Symbiosis Law School, Pune)