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Sedition Law in India: Growing calls to strike down ‘colonial’ law

By Nevin Clinton

Sedition law has been one of the most controversial aspects of the legal system in India since time immemorial. The law which deals with punishments for rebellion against the established order has been prevalent from the time of the British colonial rule and has been an infamous tool in suppressing the voice of the people. Freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi and Lokmanya Tilak have been victims of the law which was exploited by the British.

Lord Macauley who framed the Indian Penal Code included provisions for punishment for sedition under Section 113 and after amendments post-independence, sedition is governed by Section 124A of the Code. The section states that if a person by speaking, writing, signs or visible representations brings hatred or contempt towards the government, he will be punished with imprisonment up to three years and/or fine.

The arguments in favour of sedition law

Sedition law is considered important by its advocates for the reason that it helps keep anti-national elements in check. Terrorists and secessionists who incite violence through words can be curbed through the law. Anarchy, overthrowing of the government, violent protests and the like are also sowed usually by words and hence, sedition law can help prevent the same. Also, sedition law is considered akin to contempt of court as the latter deals with disrespecting one organ of the government – judiciary while the former deals with the other organs – executive and legislature. 

The arguments against sedition law

First and foremost, sedition law was introduced during British colonial rule and was used as a tool to punish Indians who dared to speak out. The law has a dark history associated with it and hence, in today’s world it seems misguided for it to continue to exist. Sedition law is also considered to be one of the biggest obstacles to the freedom of speech and expression. Further, the law is easy to exploit due to its not-so-specific wording leading to even constructive criticism sometimes being considered to be sedition. Also, there are various other provisions under the IPC and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 2019 which deal with and can govern terrorist and secessionist activities instead of sedition.

Recent occurrences and the growing calls for striking down sedition law

Recent occurrences involving sedition law have only led to more voices in favour of repealing it. Especially since 2014 when the BJP government came into power, there has been a rampant increase in the number of cases being filed under the controversial law. According to a study by Article 14, 96% of the sedition cases filed since 2010 have been after 2014. The arrest of activists and journalists hasn’t helped matters either. Further, the rate of conviction upon these arrests has been alarmingly low. Due to this huge spike in arrests and the low conviction rate, there have been a plethora of calls from various sections for the law to be completely repealed. 

While the law has not been struck down or deemed unconstitutional so far, the Supreme Court has time and again taken a stance that is critical of sedition law. Very recently, on the 15th of July, 2021, the apex court while examining a plea questioning the constitutional validity of the sedition law called the law ‘colonial’. The petitioner had contended that Section 124A of the IPC contained vague terms such as ‘disaffection towards Government’ and that it was an unreasonable restriction on the freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a). Chief Justice of India, NV Ramana upon hearing the plea stated that sedition was the law that suppressed the voices of freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi before asking the Centre whether it was necessary to still be in force. The plea is currently being examined by a three-judge bench. 

Future of sedition law

The Supreme Court’s recent views look promising from the point of view of the sedition law being repealed in the future. However, whether or not the provision will finally see its end remains to be seen. The provision does continue to divide opinion and the debate will be unceasing. Freedom of speech has perpetually been a touchy subject and hence, what the future holds is anyone’s guess.