Sedition Laws of India

In August 2014, the Maharashtra Government had come out with a circular that defined the conditions under which the police can arrest a person on sedition charges. This circular was immediately criticized by the people as an attempt by the government to stifle the democratic rights of the people. The circular was immediately dragged into Maharashtra High Court and the court ordered the government to withdraw it. In this article we look into the fundamentals of sedition law in the country.

What is sedition?

The Constitution of India does not define the word sedition. Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code defines the offence of ‘Sedition’ and provides as follows:

“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….”

It is further provided that the word ‘disaffection’ in this section includes disloyalty and feelings of enmity.

Origin of Sedition Law

The origin of sedition law in India is linked to the Wahabi Movement of 19th century. This movement, centred around Patna was an Islamic revivalist movement, whose stress was to condemn any change into the original Islam and return to its true spirit. The movement was led by Syed Ahmed Barelvi. The movement was active since 1830s but in the wake of 1857 revolt, it turned into armed resistance, a Jihad against the British. Subsequently, the British termed Wahabis as traitors and rebels and carried out extensive military operations against the Wahabis. The movement was fully suppressed after 1870. British also introduced the term “sedition” in the Indian Penal Code 1870 to outlaw speech that attempted to “excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India”.

Sedition Law and Independence Movement

British used the sedition law to quell the Indian freedom struggle and retain imperial power.

  • The first known use of Sedition law was against Jogendra Chandra Bose, editor of “Bangobasi”,who was charged in 1891 for his criticism of the “Age of Consent Bill” whereby he said that the bill was disastrous to religion and was being forcefully imposed on Indians. He later apologized for what he had written.
  • During freedom struggle, targets of this law included renowned nationalists like Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Annie Besant.
  • Later Bal Gangadhar Tilak was also was also tried under sedition law, who criticised the killing by Chapekar brothers but also blamed the British government for bringing the situation in the country to a brink, thus instigating the revolutionaries. Tilak was convicted and sentenced to six years imprisonment to Mandalay jail.
  • Later Mahatma Gandhi was tried in 1922 for his articles published in the magazine Youth India. Mahatma Gandhi said that the section 124-A under which he was charged is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen. He further said that “Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by the law. If one has no affection for a person, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence.”

Recent cases of use of sedition law

In free India, sedition law has been used against many people such as:

  • In 2012, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested with sedition charges because his banners and cartoons mocked constitution, parliament and India’s national flag.
  • In 2010,  Noor Mohammad Bhat, a lecturer from Gandhi Memorial College was arrested for setting an anti-India question paper.
  • In 2010, writer Arundhati Roy and SAR Gilani were arrested for making anti-Indian speech in New Delhi
  • In 2009, V Gopalaswamy (Vaiko) was slapped with sedition charges for his statements against India’s sovereignty in speech on Sri Lanka’s war with LTTE
  • In 2007, Binayak sen was arrested for sedition charges due to his help to carry messages to Maoists in Chhattisgarh.

Article 124-A of IPC v/s Article 19(1) of Constitution debate

In the Ram Nandan vs. State (1958), the Allahabad High Court held section 124-A to be unconstitutional citing that the section restricts freedom of speech (Article 19) in disregard of whether the interest of public order or the security of the state is involved and is capable of striking at the very root of the Constitution which is free speech.

The decision of the Allahabad High Court was overruled by Supreme Court in the Kedarnath Singh v State of Bihar (1962). However, the Supreme Court said that this section should be construed as to limit their application to acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder or disturbance of law and order, or incitement to violence. If used arbitrarily, the sedition law would violate freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution under Article 19″.

Current Position:

Even after the above decision by the Supreme Court, the section 124-A continues to be used irrespective of whether the alleged seditious act or words constitute a tendency to cause public disorder or incitement to violence. India is one of the few countries where we have an archaic sedition law. United Kingdom repealed its sedition law in 2010. Various sections of the society are demanding that the section of sedition must be dropped from the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

Opinion Should Sedition law stay?

In the Menaka Gandhi case, the Supreme Court had held that  freedom of speech and expression is not confined to geographical limitations and it carries with it the right of a citizen to gather information and to exchange thought with others not only in India but abroad too.

Thus, criticism against  the government policies and decisions within a reasonable limit that does not incite people to rebel is consistent with freedom of speech and expression. In the Kedarnath Singh case, the Supreme Court has warned against the arbitrary use of sedition law because such arbitrary use would violate the violate the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution.

In today’s environment the sedition law seems to be colonial bogey which expects that citizens should not show enmity, contempt or hatred towards the government established by law. However, slapping sedition charged merely on words spoken or written should needs to be avoided. Thus, in its current form, there is a grey area which lies between actual law and its implementation.  In many cases, it has been randomly used. Thus the law needs amendments to minimize those grey areas.  However, such laws are necessary evils in a country like India where so many divisive forces are acting in tandem. The need for such law is to deter the activities that promote violence and public disorder. {View is personal}

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