The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a batch of petitions challenging the 153-year-old sedition law on 11 May, 2023. A bench comprising Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice P S Narasimha has listed for hearing as many as 12 petitions.
In a notable order the previous year, the Supreme Court had asked the Centre and states not to register any cases of sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code pending an exercise to review the colonial law. “It will be appropriate not to use this provision of law till further reexamination is over. We hope Centre and States will desist from registering any FIR under 124A or initiate proceeding under the same till reexamination is over,” a three-judge Bench led by the then Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, also presided over by Justices Suryakant and Hima Kohli, had ordered. The Bench had noted that the Union Government in its affidavit agreed with the observation that rigours of Section 124A are not in consonance with the present-day circumstances and the law was meant for the time when country was governed by colonial law. The affidavit claimed that the said colonial-era law is “not in line with the current social milieu”. The Bench had further asked the Union Government to reconsider the law. The court added, “If any fresh case is filed under Section 124A IPC, the accused can approach the court concerned for reliefs.”
During the hearing, the Centre had opposed the proposal to stay the exercise of the sedition law under Section 124A IPC. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, as an alternative, submitted that future FIRs under Section 124A IPC shall be filed only after scrutiny by Superintendent of Police. In cases that are pending, courts can be directed to expeditiously consider bail. Representing the petitioners, senior advocate Kapil Sibal diverged from the SG Mehta’s argument, labelling it “wholly unacceptable”. The Bench, however, which had on 10th May, 2022 asked the Centre to provide clarity on the issue if all sedition cases filed across India could be kept in suspension till the review of Section 124A of the IPC was concluded, did not agree with SG Mehta’s submission. “It would be appropriate to put the provision on abeyance,” the court said. The Union of India had also been given the liberty to “issue the Directive as proposed and placed before us, to the State Governments/Union Territories to prevent any misuse of Section 124A of IPC”.
In July 2021, the then Chief Justice of India had asked the Attorney General to clarify if Sedition law was still required after 75 years of independence. He mentioned that the sedition law was used by the British against pioneers of the freedom movement such as Lokmanya Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhagat Singh, etc., who were convicted for their seditious speeches, writings and activities under the British regime. “The government has repealed a number of laws…I don’t know why you aren’t looking into it,” the CJI had asked.
The petitioners challenging the validity of Section 124A of IPC included Editors Guild of India and former Major General S G Vombatkere, former union minister Arun Shourie and journalists Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha from Manipur and Kanhaiya Lal Shukla from Chhattisgarh.
Section 124-A criminalises any act which “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government of India”. It is a non-bailable offence. Punishment under Section 124A ranges from imprisonment up to three years to a life term, to which a fine may be added.
As per National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports, Assam recorded the most number of Sedition cases in the country in the last eight years. Out of 475 sedition cases registered in the country between 2014 and 2021, Assam accounted for 69 cases (14.52%). After Assam, the most number of such cases were reported from Haryana (42 cases), followed by Jharkhand (40), Karnataka (38), Andhra Pradesh (32) and Jammu and Kashmir (29). These six states accounted for 250 cases — more than half the number of total sedition cases recorded in the country — in the eight-year period. 76 sedition cases were registered across the country in 2021, a marginal increase from the 73 registered in 2020.
This piece of legislation has been debated since its inception. The statute was originally drafted in 1837 by Thomas Macaulay, the British historian-politician, but was mysteriously removed when the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was enacted in 1860. In 1837, when the Indian Penal Code was originally framed, Section 113 of the draft, which criminalised sedition, did not mention anything about sedition being only provocation to disorder and violence and rather was framed in terms very similar to seditious libel. While Section 113 was not included in the the final draft of the Indian Penal Code, the provision on sedition, that is Section 124-A, came to be added to the Indian Penal Code in 1870 through an Amendment. This occurred in response to the Wahabi uprising at the time.
The original constitution that was adopted in 1950 did not recognise the law on sedition and gave the right to free speech absolute protection within the fundamental rights. However, the first amendment brought in 1951 introduced restrictions that validated the sedition law.