In a historic move, the Supreme Court has put a hold on the controversial sedition laws in India, bringing hope to hundreds of undertrials who are in prison due to sedition. On Wednesday, the apex court stayed all proceedings in sedition cases across the country and directed the Centre and states to not register any fresh FIR invoking sedition charges until the government re-examines the colonial-era penal law. A bench headed by Chief Justice N V Ramana said all pending cases, appeals and proceedings with respect to charges framed for sedition should be kept in abeyance.
Sedition is a non-bailable offence in India under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. Academics, human rights activists and other parts of civil society have long objected to the sedition laws which many claimed were used arbitrarily against individuals and that they were used to target certain individuals.
The decision, however, seems to have led to a war of words between Solicitor General Tushar Mehta and TMC leader Mahua Moitra. The West Bengal MP is among the petitioners who had challenged the sedition law along with other entities like the Editors' Guild of India. On Tuesday, during the hearing of the case, Mehta reportedly told the SC that “this government was doing what Nehru couldn’t do”.
Mehta was responding to senior advocate and Congress leader Kapil Sibal who argued that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had called for the removal of the law ‘obnoxious' law.
The Home Ministry, in its affidavit, has given credit to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for taking cognisance of the concerns and objections regarding the sedition law and its misuse. It also credited him for ordering the reconsideration of certain provisions. Union Minister Kiren Rijiju has also attributed the change in the centre’s stance to the PM/. In court on Tuesday, Mehta, appearing for the centre, took potshots at the Opposition and claimed that Congress had not taken ant steps to change or amend the law but the present governing was doing it.
To this, Sibal, appearing for the petitioners, said that Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi had been against sedition laws and that
Nehru had called it an “obnoxious” law that “should not be allowed to remain”. To this, Mehta responded that while Sibal was quoting Nehru, the BJP government was making it happen. “They didn't do it. This is a government of the people," commented Mehta during the hearing,” Mehta said.
The exchange of words has led to a sharp reaction from Mahatma Moitra who took to the microblogging site Twitter to express her response. “You are right. “You are right, Sir. Nehru could not lie in court, spy on countrymen, arrest innocents, lock up dissenters with no due process. The list is a long one," Mahua Moitra tweeted replying to Mehta's comment inside the court,” Moitra wrote.
Previously, Moitra had questioned the centre’s sudden change of heart on the sedition case. The sedition law has been liberally used against activists, students, journalists and others since the BJP government came to power in 2014. In an interview with NDTV, Moitra claimed that the Centre’s move to seek a sudden review of the legislation was just a ploy to but time. The MP, however, welcomed the SC verdict on Wednesday with congratulatory tweets.
During the hearing on Wednesday, the Centre suggested that a superintendent of police ranked officers could be made responsible for monitoring the registration of FIRs for the offence of sedition.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, told the bench, which also comprised Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli, that the registration of FIRs for the offence of sedition cannot be prevented as the provision dealt with a cognisable offence and was upheld by a Constitution bench in 1962.
With regard to pending sedition cases, the Centre suggested that hearing on bail pleas in such matters may be expedited as the government did not know the gravity of the offence in each case and they may have terror or money laundering angles.
"Ultimately, pending cases are before the judicial forum and we need to trust courts," the law officer told the bench.
On Tuesday, the bench had asked the Centre to make its stand clear within 24 hours on keeping the pending sedition cases in abeyance to protect the interests of citizens already booked and not registering fresh cases till the government's re-examination of the colonial-era penal law is over.