Explained: What Is India's 'Colonial' Sedition Law?

Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code dealing with sedition is at present under abeyance following directions of the Supreme Court issued in May, 2022.

Protests against sedition laws.

The Law Commission has backed the penal provision for the offence of sedition, saying repealing it altogether can have serious adverse ramifications for the security and integrity of the country 

Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code dealing with sedition is at present under abeyance following directions of the Supreme Court issued in May, 2022.

What is the sedition law?

The sedition law was first drafted by Thomas Macaulay in 1837 and was added to the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 1870 by James Stephen as Section 124A. 

According to Section 124A, the sedition law means “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 shall be punished with im­prisonment for life, to which fine may be added.”

The law also provides an explanation to clarify its meaning:
i) ‘disaffection’ means all feelings of enmity and disloyalty, ii) displaying disapproval of the Government’s policies/actions without inciting hatred, contempt, or disaffection is not considered an offence under this law.

The sedition law was introduced during the Freedom Struggle by the British to prevent dissent among the citizens. The law was held against many freedom fighters that we know and celebrate today, including Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and Annie Besant. 

A non-bailable offence, violation of the sedition law can lead to three years of jail time, sometimes including a fine. If the offender holds a government job, they will be barred from this job, and have to live without a passport. 

Why has the law attracted criticism?

The sedition law’s existence even in the present day has come under heavy criticism. A common basis of criticism is that the law is a ‘colonial legacy’ – it was used by the British to stifle rebellion among Indians. However, the Law Commission ruled that this is not valid grounds for the repealing of the law. 

Opposition to the sedition law began as early as the 1950s, when the Supreme Court said that “criticism of the government exciting disaffection or bad feelings towards it, is not to be regarded as a justifying ground for restricting the freedom of expression and of the press, unless it is such as to undermine the security of or tend to overthrow the state.”

The high courts of Punjab and Haryana have also said that the law was merely a tool for the ‘colonial masters’ to control the masses and prevent them from speaking up, declaring that the provisions were ‘unconstitutional’. 

What did the law commission say?

Despite these criticisms, the Law Commission today held that Section 124A is essential for the safety of the country, saying “Section I24A of IPC has its utility in combating anti-national and secessionist elements as it seeks to protect the elected government from attempts to overthrow it through violent and illegal means.”

The Commission said repealing the provision on the mere basis that certain countries have done so is essentially turning a blind eye to the glaring ground realities existing in India and that it can be retained with certain safeguards to prevent its misuse.

According to an article by India Today, “Under the title 'offences against the State' the report shows a total of 179 arrests for sedition. However, no charge sheets were filed by the police in over 70% of the cases, and only two convictions during this time period. This data belie the claim for retaining Section 124A of IPC.”

"Never has there been any plausible demand to repeal any such laws merely on the ground that they are being misused by a section of the populace. This is so because for every abuser of that law, there might be ten other genuine victims of any offence who direly need the protection of such a law," the report said. 

The sedition law can easily be misused, and people can be arrested under the pretext of dissent. For example, according to reports, in 2021, three Kashmiri Muslim girls were jailed for six months for celebrating the fact that Pakistan won against India in a cricket match. 

The same law has been repealed in other countries like Britain and Nigeria, under the grounds that it is an unconstitutional law that infringes upon the citizens’ freedom of speech. 

(With inputs from PTI)