Almost 100 years ago in 1922, Mahatma Gandhi was arrested on charges of sedition in Bombay for protesting against the British government. It was first used against freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1897 for writing articles against the oppressive British rule. On May 11, Wednesday, the Supreme Court of India in a historic decision put a stay on the law, ruling that no new FIRs will be lodged under the archaic law until the Centre re-examines its provisions.
Reacting to the apex court’s direction, Aakar Patel, human rights activist and Chair of Amnesty International India Board, said, “Sedition has fallen. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act will also go.”
“Great day for democracy. The sedition law stands stayed,” TMC leader Mahua Moitra wrote on Twitter.
Interestingly, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs in an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court on Wednesday underlined the Prime Minister’s unequivocal commitment towards protection of civil liberties, and added that the central government has decided to go for re-consideration of the provisions in the spirit of ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’. The interim order of the apex court has come in response to a batch of writ petitions filed by Army veteran Major-General SG Vombatkere (retired) and the Editors Guild of India, former Union Minister Arun Shourie, All India Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra, journalist Anil Chamadia, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, journalists Patricia Mukhim and Anuradha Bhasin, and Journalist Union of Assam.
Indira Jaising, senior Supreme Court lawyer, told Outlook, “When the government is admitting in its affidavit that the law is being abused and misused, the Supreme Court order is justified. The law has come under a cloud. It has become a dead law. Its status gets reduced to that of a formality on the paper.”
“In this situation, while no fresh FIRs should be lodged under the sections, all those charged under sedition be released. There should be no more arrests as an interim measure pending reconsideration,” she remarked.
From British rule to the democratic system of governance at present, the 152-year-old draconian sedition law remains a preferred weapon in the hands of the authorities to suppress dissent. Drafted by Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, “sedition” was inserted in the Indian Penal Code in 1870 as Section 124-A. It has also been used against freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh.
Oddly, people representing almost all hues of political beliefs have been stung by the sedition law in the past two decades. From Hindutva leader Pravin Togadia to Tamil folk singer S Kovan, rights activist Dr Binayak Sen, author Arundhati Roy, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, Gujarat youth leader Hardik Patel, late Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stalwart Arun Jaitely and 83-year-old priest and rights activist Stan Swamy who passed away in jail in July last year, all of them find themselves on the same page.
Even though the United Kingdom itself had repealed sedition as a crime in 2010 to strengthen the right to freedom of expression, the colonial era law has remained deeply entrenched in the Indian legal system. Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951 had described sedition law as “highly objectionable and obnoxious”. According to Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code, 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, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.
The colonial era sedition law had got a boost at a time when “us versus them”, “national versus anti-national” dichotomy was only becoming more and more rigid. The controversial law has allegedly been frequently and arbitrarily used to suppress dissent. In recent years, the government has frequently invoked section 124 A of IPC to muzzle dissenting voices. In February 2020, a sedition case was filed against Gorakhpur doctor Kafeel Khan over his alleged inflammatory speech at the Aligarh Muslim University.
“Charges against me were dropped almost two years ago, but I am still called a terrorist,” Khan said, reacting to the top court’s direction to the central government on Wednesday.
In June last year, a sedition case was registered against filmmaker Aisha Sultana, a native of Chetlat island, following a complaint filed by president of the BJP’s Lakshadweep unit. On the other side, while quashing the sedition case against journalist Vinod Dua, the top court referred to its Kedar Nath Singh judgment, which had maintained that the alleged seditious speech and expression could be punished only if the speech is an incitement to violence or public disorder.
Previously, during the anti-CAA movement, several BJP ruled states used the British era law to discourage protests. For example, on January 22, 2020 Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath warned anti-CAA protesters, saying slogans of “azadi” will be regarded as sedition. In January 2020, the Dhanbad Police of Jharkhand registered a case against more than 3,000 people under various sections of the IPC including section 124-A for participating in anti-CAA/NRC protests. However, after the intervention of chief minister Hemant Soren the sedition charges were dropped.
In January 2019, the Assam Police booked an 80-year-old scholar Hiren Gohain for allegedly saying there would be demands for sovereignty if the BJP-led NDA government forcibly pushed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB).
Notably, the sedition law has also been used against people protesting for the protection of their basic human rights. In 2018, a case was registered by Jammu and Kashmir Police against an entire village of border residents in Ramgarh sector of Samba district for protesting against government’s failure to protect their life, liberty and property in the wake of cross-border shelling and firing.
Before the Hemant Soren government in its first cabinet decision dropped all cases registered against people during the Pathalgadi movement in 2017-2018, Congress’s Rahul Gandhi had slammed “sedition” law, asserting that the abuse of law should have shocked the national conscience, triggering a media storm. In February 2019, senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram had also called for scrapping the sedition law following the BJP-led Tripura government’s order to file charges of sedition against those protesting the Citizenship Amendment Bill. But when Congress was in power, in 2012 and 2013 alone, as many as 23,000 men and women who protested against a nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu were held for “waging war against the State” and sedition.
Many jurists have been demanding that the controversial law be amended or abolished. Justice Deepak Gupta of the Supreme Court during a public lecture in September 2019 had stressed that “the law of sedition needs to be toned down, if not abolished.” Justice (retired) Madan B Lokur in January 2019 had maintained that the IPC which defined criminal defamation as an offence should be abolished whereas Section 124-A needs to be reviewed.
In 2018, the Law Commission in a consultation paper had suggested that criticism of the government can’t be treated as sedition. It stated, “Every irresponsible exercise of the right to free speech and expression can’t be termed seditious. For merely expressing a thought that is not in consonance with the policy of the Government of the day, a person should not be charged under the section”.