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U-turn on sedition law: Govt’s decision to dilute its earlier tough stand is a welcome surprise

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While what prompted the U-turn is not clear as yet, it is a sensible move, given the gross misuse of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), or the sedition law.

Given the many instances of its gross misuse, the Centre has done well to dilute its tough stand on the sedition law. In a new affidavit filed in the Supreme Court on Monday, it said, “in the spirit of Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav (75 years of Independence) and the vision of PM Narendra Modi, the government has decided to re-examine and reconsider the provisions of Section 124A, Sedition law.” The reply, dramatically different from the Centre’s earlier stance, came after a three-judge bench of Chief Justice NV Ramana, Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli on Thursday said that it would hear arguments this week about reviewing the SC’s 1962 Kedar Nath Singh judgment that upheld the law’s constitutionality. While what prompted the U-turn is not clear as yet, it is a sensible move, given the gross misuse of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), or the sedition law. On Saturday last week, the Centre had firmly defended the colonial-era law and had asked the SC to dismiss the pleas challenging it. The government argued that Kedar Nath Singh “must be treated as a binding precedent” that has withstood the test of time. It had also stated that the instances of abuse of the sedition law did not justify any review of the judgment.

The decision to review the law is a welcome surprise specially because it comes from a government which had been refusing to entertain any contrarian opinion on the issue. In 2019, the home ministry had stated that no instance of “misuse by governments in power against the critiques” had come to its notice, and thus the question of a repeal of the colonial-era law didn’t arise. Again, in 2021, it maintained a cryptic “amendment of criminal law is a continuous process”. This was despite the Union home minister talking about the need to overhaul the IPC to rid it of its “master and servant” spirit, given it was meant to “maintain the stability of the British empire”.

Diminishing the scope of the law hasn’t really worked. In Kedar Nath Singh, the SC did uphold the constitutionality of the law, saying Article 19(2), which imposes “reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech”, protected the sedition law from the “vice of unconstitutionality”. It nevertheless circumscribed the application of the law to “acts involving intention or tendency to create disorder, or disturbance of law and order, or incitement to violence.” It even specifically narrowed its scope in order to protect dissent. Yet, the application of the law has been often atavistic—reflecting the colonial-era mindset to control political expression and curb dissent. The law continued to be invoked with such disregard for democratic principles that even a ruling-party lawmaker in a state recanted an ill-advised remark he had made, for fear of sedition charges. Sedition charges were most recently slapped against a lawmaker couple in Maharashtra for a communally-charged campaign they launched. Indeed, while the court deemed the statements made by the couple as “blameworthy”, it didn’t find sufficient grounds for the sedition law to apply, showing how administrations have been trigger-happy with the law.

In any case, the indiscriminate application of the sedition law has meant that the charges hardly stick. Data with the Centre shows, of the 399 cases of sedition registered between 2014 and 2020, just eight ended in conviction. As one of the advocates of the petitioners seeking a review has opined, the law has undergone a “sea-change” in its invocation after the 1962 case-law. While the state must remain vigilant against those endangering the nation’s security and stability, the sedition law is too blunt an instrument. Even the UK, which scripted India’s sedition law, scrapped its own sedition law in 2009. It is good the Indian government has finally seen reason.

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