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Explained: What is sedition law and what are the controversies and developments around Section 124A?

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Although Thomas Macaulay, who drafted the Indian Penal Code, had included the law on sedition, it was not added in the code enacted in 1860.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday stayed all proceedings in sedition cases and directed the Centre and states to not register any fresh FIR invoking sedition charges until the government re-examines the colonial era penal law. It also directed that those already facing sedition charges can approach courts for bail. 

The central government had initially defended the colonial-era law, citing the Supreme Court’s Kedar Nath Singh verdict. However, in a major climbdown, it later told the top court that it will re-examine the penal provision of the sedition law. 

What is sedition law?

The sedition law — also known as Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code — states that anyone who attempts to excite disaffection/hatred towards the government established by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added or with fine. The law also bars the accused from applying for a government job.

The provision also contains three explanations: 1- The expression “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity; 2- Comments expressing disapprobation of the meas­ures of the Government with a view to obtain their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section; 3- Comments expressing disapprobation of the admin­istrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.

Although Thomas Macaulay, who drafted the Indian Penal Code, had included the law on sedition, it was not added in the code enacted in 1860. Legal experts believe this omission was accidental. In 1890, sedition was included as an offence under section 124A IPC through the Special Act XVII.

Controversies around Section 124A

Controversies surrounding the sedition law are not new. Even Mahatma Gandhi had termed Section 124A a tool designed to suppress the liberty of the citizens. Successive governments have used the law against political leaders, activists and media among others, actions that have been criticised as alleged attempts to suppress dissent. Not only the central but state governments have also used the law. 

Recently, the West Bengal government filed a sedition case against Kamtapur Liberation Organisation chief Jibon Singha for calling Mamata Banerjee an ‘outsider’. In another case, the Lakshadweep administration charged filmmaker Aisha Sultana under the sedition law over her comment in which she had called the UT’s administrator Praful Patel a ‘bioweapon’. 

According to government data, 326 sedition cases were registered across the country between 2014 and 2019 and only six persons were convicted of these. Manipur journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem was also arrested on sedition charges and was later slapped with the NSA but he was also granted bail by Manipur High Court.

Court judgments on Section 124A

In 1950s, the Supreme Court in Romesh Thapar vs State of Madras held 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.”

Later, two high courts — the Punjab and Haryana High Court in Tara Singh Gopi Chand vs The State in 1951, and the Allahabad High Court in Ram Nandan vs State of Uttar Pradesh (1959) — declared that Section 124A of the IPC was primarily a tool for colonial masters to quell discontent in the country and declared the provision unconstitutional.

In the Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar case in 1962, the Supreme Court overruled the earlier rulings of the high courts and upheld the constitutional validity of IPC Section 124A. However, the court attempted to restrict its scope for misuse. The court held that unless accompanied by an incitement or call for violence, criticism of the government cannot be labelled sedition. 

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