‘Swaraj is my birthright, and I shall have it’ were the iconic words of Lokmanya Tilak. The father of Indian unrest during the British Empire was slapped with three sedition charges during his lifetime and had spent months behind bars. The sedition law was first written during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in Britain. Later, Thomas Macaulay designed the tyrannical section 124(A) to prevent the Indian revolts during the British Raj. Under the old sedition law, those who spoke against the British Government would be transported ‘beyond the seas for the remaining years of his natural life."
In 1955, the sedition law was amended and as of today it reads: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by signs or by visible representation or otherwise brings or attempts to bring hatred or contempt or excite or attempt to excite disaffection towards the government established by law shall be punished with life imprisonment or life imprisonment with fine or some years with fine or just fine” In 2009, the British Government repealed the sedition law in their country as it was a ‘relic of an era when freedom of expression was not considered a fundamental right’. But why did it continue to exist in India? Sedition Law is supported by a historical judgment that was ruled out in 1966 under the Kedar Nath Singh vs The Union of India case. A panel consisting of five judges supported the sedition law and laid certain principles for the application of the charge. For instance, the panel announced that if the accused has an intention or tendency to create public disturbances or his/her activities incited violence then he/she would be charged under the penal. The Indian Constitution, according to Article 19 protects and grants all citizens the right to enjoy the freedom of speech and expression. Anyone with a thought or opinion can criticize the government if their expression does not incite disturbance in the public order. In the world’s largest democracy there exist no system to check whether the charges of sedition against a particular individual are maintainable. It takes years for a trial to be heard and the accused spend years behind bars even if their crime is not hurting the public order and remains just a sharp critique of a political entity or group. For the Shiv Sena Paper Saamana, Sanjay Raut had recently said that sedition charges have been used as a political weapon in the country to silence opponents. Late veteran Journalist, Vinod Dua was charged with sedition after he had critiqued the ruling party, the BJP’s handling of the migrant crisis during the pandemic. However, the supreme court quashed all the charges that were laid against him. Journalists have the power to shape public opinion. Critiquing the government merely for its failure is an action for seeking accountability and should not be seen as a criminal offence. Presently, the Supreme Court has put the law under abeyance till the Centre completes its review on the same. It has been decided that the petitions seeking the validity of the law will be heard from the third week of July. Currently, India has more than 800 cases of Sedition against 1300 citizens. According to reports by the National Crime Records Bureau cases registered by the police under the sedition law increased by 160 percent from 2010-to 2020. However, the conviction rate dropped from 33.3 percent to just 3 percent.
1. Indian Kanoon, 124 (A) Sedition Law
2. Live Mint, Supreme Court Puts The Sedition Law On Hold, No New FIRs To Be Lodged, 11th May 2022, https://www.livemint.com/news/india/supreme-court-puts-the-sedition-law-on-hold-no-new-firs-to-be-lodged-11652250073498.html
4. Tripathi, Rahul, Economic Times, Arrests Under Sedition Charges Rise But Conviction Falls To 3%, February 17th, 2021, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/arrests-under-sedition-charges-rise-but-conviction-falls-to-3/articleshow/81028501.cms?from=mdr
5. Vishwanath, Apurva, The Indian Express, Explained: The Kedar Nath sedition ruling, June 4th, 2021, https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/vinod-dua-sedition-case-supreme-court-kedar-nath-ruling-explained-7343405/