Highlights

  • What is sedition law?
  • How sedition law became a part of Indian Penal Code
  • Is it time for sedition law to go?

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Decoded | Sedition law explained: Time for 'colonial baggage' to go?

A Supreme Court bench, headed by the Chief Justice of India, has stayed all proceedings in sedition cases. What is sedition law, where did it come from in India, and is it time for it to go?

A Supreme Court bench, headed by the Chief Justice of India, has stayed all proceedings in sedition cases, and asked governments to not file any FIRs under the provision. This comes after the Central government had said that they will reconsider the law, as part of an effort to ‘shed colonial baggage’.

Which is great, but what is sedition?

The dictionary definition of the word is the use of words or action that are intended to encourage people to oppose the government.

Although the recent Supreme Court order has stayed this provision, sedition is defined under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code as both a non-bailable and cognisable offence.

Which means that the police can arrest any accused person without a warrant, and they would not be able to get bail until the case is closed. The recent SC order, however, allows any person currently booked under sedition to apply for bail.

Sedition is also a non-compoundable office, which meant that once charges are filed, they can not be withdrawn, and there can be no settlement. Any accused person had to go through the full trial.

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History of Sedition Law

The government has called sedition ‘colonial baggage’, because it was added to the Indian Penal Code by the British in 1870.

Freedom fighter Balgangadhar Tilak was be convicted for sedition and was sent to jail for 18 months in 1897.

Mahatma Gandhi was also arrested for sedition by the British govt in 1922.

Sedition was originally also a part of the draft Indian constitution, as a restriction on freedom of speech and expression. In 1949, it was dropped from the Constitution but retained in the IPC.

In 1951, Prime Minister Nehru amended Article 19(1)(a) that guarantees fundamental rights, to put in ‘reasonable restrictions’ on the right to free speech.

Then in 1974, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made sedition cognisable offence and authorised police to make arrests without a warrant.

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Who can be charged with sedition?

So, could anyone be charged with sedition? In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that even strongly worded criticism of the government would be considered within the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression.

There was, however, a catch. The Court did say that when words or actions have a destructive tendency, or the intent of creating disorder or disturbance, it can be called sedition.

But how exactly does one gauge the tendency or intention behind a word or action?

The vague wording of this order left scope for the government to slap any criticism with sedition, arguing that the words or actions have the tendency or intention to create disorder, or provoke disaffection against the govt.

The accused could approach the court for relief, but remember that this was a non-bailable and non-compoundable offence, and the burden of proof lay with the accused. The process, therefore, became the punishment.

The Chief Justice of India, NV Ramana, in 2021, had said that the law needs to go. He said that the law’s conviction rate is very low, and its enormous power can be compared to a carpenter using a saw to cut an entire forest, instead of a tree.

So, are the Chief Justice’s concerns about the misuse of sedition law well-founded?

A total of 326 cases were registered in the country under the sedition law between 2014 and 2019.

However, just six persons were convicted under the law, according to Home Ministry's recent data. For the rest, the process became punishment.

While we await the Central government’s reconsideration of the sedition law, the point to be noted is that the United Kingdom, which gave India this law, scrapped it back in 2009.

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