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Update on Sedition Law in India, Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code

Sedition Law Meaning

Sedition is a crime against the state and is dealt with in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. Sedition punishes any content that has the potential to incite violence or public disruption in the country by inciting hatred, contempt, or disaffection for the government. When criticism is used to oppose and change legislative or administrative decisions made by the government, it is not considered to constitute seditious activity. Sedition Law refers to a body of law that criminalizes speech or conduct that is deemed to be a threat to the stability of the state or to the authority of the government.

Section 124A of IPC is a heavily criticised and misapplied section that is primarily employed to suppress political opposition. It is stated that it prevents people from exercising their right to free speech and expression. Recent progress has been made in the direction of eliminating it as a crime.

To the Supreme Court’s decision in Kedarnath Singh v. State of Bihar (1962), sedition is only a crime if it is coupled with incitement or a call to violence. As a result, Section 124A must be interpreted in light of Kedarnath Singh’s ruling, and sedition will only be considered to be an offence if it causes or is likely to cause “public disorder” or “violence.”

Sedition Law: Latest Update

Home Minister of India introduced the Bharatiya Sanhita Suraksha Bill, 2023 in Lok Sabha to replace the Indian Penal Code, Code of Criminal Procedure and Indian Evidence Act, and referred the laws to a standing committee.

“From 1860 to 2023, the country’s criminal justice system functioned as per the laws made by the British. With these three laws there will be a major change in the criminal justice system in the country. Home Minister  added that the law on sedition has been repealed. However, upon closer inspection, one can see that the crucial provision is only introduced under a new name with a wider definition of the offence. The Bill, among other things, seeks to reinvent Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises sedition as an offence “endangering sovereignty, unity and integrity of India.”

Proposed Changes in Sedition Law

Section 150 of The Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita Bill, 2023 deals with the offence of sedition. However, it does not use the word sedition but describes the offence as “endangering sovereignty, unity and integrity of India.”

Whoever, purposely or knowingly, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or by electronic communication or by use of financial mean, or otherwise, excites or attempts to excite, secession or armed rebellion or subversive activities, or encourages feelings of separatist activities or endangers sovereignty or unity and integrity of India; or indulges in or commits any such act shall be punished with imprisonment for life or with imprisonment which may extend to seven years and shall also be liable to fine.

The new provision brings under its sweep aiding through financial means and acts of “subversive activities”, or those encouraging “feelings of separatist activities.

It is to strengthen the provision by adding procedural safeguards and enhancing jail term. The Commission had recommended adding the words “with a tendency to incite violence or cause public disorder.” The report also defined tendency to incite violence as a “mere inclination to incite violence or cause public disorder rather than proof of actual violence or imminent threat to violence.”

Current law on Sedition

Section 124A of the IPC reads: Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government estab­lished by law in, shall be punished with im­prisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with impris­onment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.

Read More: Article 19 of Indian Constitution

Sedition Law Section 124A of IPC

According to IPC Section 124 A, “Whoever brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India shall be punished. According to Section 124A, sedition carries one of the following penalties:

  • Prison for up to three years
  • A life sentence in prison
  • A life sentence in prison and a fine
  • Up to three years in jail and a fine
  • Just fine

The judge presiding over the trial processes makes the choice regarding the severity of punishment to be meted out to the convicted party.

Sedition Constitutes

The following bullet points list the main elements of sedition:

  • Words, whether spoken or written, signs, a visual depiction, or any other such act, must exist.
  • An act of this nature should inspire or attempt to inspire anger, contempt, or disaffection;
  • Such hatred, scorn, or disapproval must be directed at any legal government in India; and
  • It must have caused public unrest or the encouragement of violence.

Read More: Right to Freedom

Sedition Law in India History

Sedition was not a crime in the original version of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) of 1860, which Thomas Macaulay wrote in 1837. Sedition was added to the Indian Penal Code by Sir James Stephen in the modification of 1870. It was first initiated during British Rule in India under the heading “Exciting Disaffection.”

The Penal Code Amendment Act of 1870 was amended by the IPC Amendment Act of 1898. With a few exceptions made in 1937, 1948, and 1950, and by the Part B States (Law) Act, 1951, it is claimed that the current Section 124A is comparable to the revisions made to it in 1898.

Read More: Article 21 of the Indian Constitution

Sedition Law in India Important Cases

Over the years, the law of sedition under Section 124A of the IPC states that a person will be charged with sedition if they “bring or attempt to bring into hatred or contempt, or excite or attempt to excite disaffection towards the Government. Its criticism can be traced back to its imposition in 1870.

Jogendra Chunder Bose versus Queen Empress (1891)

The case Jogendra Chunder Bose versus the Queen Empress (1891) was a legal dispute that took place in British India in 1891. The case involved Jogendra Chunder Bose, a wealthy Indian merchant who was accused of contempt of court. Bose was charged for publishing an article that was deemed insulting to the British Indian judiciary. He was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment, but he appealed the case to the Privy Council in London. The Privy Council ultimately upheld the conviction, finding that Bose had indeed engaged in contemptuous behaviour.

This case is significant as it highlights the tensions between the British colonial government and Indian subjects in late 19th-century India, as well as the limitations on freedom of speech and expression under colonial rule. In a piece, Jugendra Bose criticised the 1891 Age of Consent Act. His critique was interpreted as disrespect for the authorities. However, once he was granted bail, the matter was ultimately withdrawn.

Trial for Sedition of Lokmanya Tilak (1897)

Reports of the event were reported by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who then published an article by Professor. Karkaria presented his work to the Bombay Royal Asiatic Society in 1894. The yearly Shivaji Coronation celebration was made possible by this publication. Tilak afterwards made the reports of the festivities public. These festivities were described as “Shivaji’s Utterances” by Tilak in his newspapers, Kesari and Mahratta.

Justice Arthur Strachey presided over the proceedings. This sedition trial is significant in history because it was an attempt to incite hostility against the government, which was classified as seditious and brought under the purview of Section 124A. The understanding of Section 124A was thus expanded. Tilak was sentenced to 18 months of rigorous imprisonment.

Sedition Trial of Lokmanya Tilak (1908)

Two Kesari articles by Tilak were published: “The Country’s Misfortune,” which appeared on May 12, 1908, and “These Remedies Are Not Lasting,” which appeared on June 9, 1908. He received a six-year prison term in Burma under the recently created Section 124A. (Now, Myanmar).

Gandhiji’s Trial for Seditious Speech (1922)

Due to the writings, he published in his journal, “Young India,” Mahatma Gandhi spent six years in prison. His Majesty’s Government formed by law in British India was accused of “bringing or attempting to arouse disaffection,” according to the charges brought against him. The Indian Penal Code’s Section 124A was described by Mahatma Gandhi as a “Prince among the political sections designed to crush the liberty of the citizen.”

Romesh Thappar v. the State of Madras and Brij Bhushan and Others v. the State of Delhi (1950)

The Supreme Court ruled that it was unlawful to impose speech restrictions on the grounds that doing so would disrupt the peace. Following the court’s ruling, Article 19 (2) of the Constitution was revised to read “in the interest of public order” instead of “undermining the security of the State.”

Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar (1962)

In this instance, Section 124A’s constitutionality was put to the test. A Forward Bloc member was accused of sedition after making a speech. SC held that “Speech or writing that includes the idea of “revolution” or “subverting the government by violent means” is considered seditious. The act of sedition includes an unsuccessful attempt to incite too and also to incite chaos in public was seditious.

Balwant Singh vs State of Punjab (1962)

On the day of the assassination of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, Balwant Singh, who served as the Director of Public Instructions (DPI) in Punjab and Chandigarh among other places, is believed to have yelled pro-Khalistan chants. The top court ruled that mere sloganeering cannot result in imprisonment under Section 124A unless there is public disruption.

Read about: Article 14 of Indian Constitution

Sedition Law Supreme Court

The validity of sedition as a crime has once again come before the Supreme Court of India. In the case of S.G. Vombatkere v. Union of India 2022, it has decided to suspend Section 124A. According to the top court, all upcoming and ongoing trials, hearings, and appeals are put on hold while the Center re-examines Section 124A. An order was issued by the bench, which was led by the Chief Justice of India.

  • Trials, appeals, and other Section 124A-related actions that are still underway are temporarily halted.
  • If the court determines that the accused would not suffer a disadvantage, the proceedings in such circumstances are permitted when sedition is coupled with other sections.

Read about: Article 15 of Indian Constitution

Sedition Law Importance

  • The law prevents anti-national, separatist, and terrorist elements from disrupting public order, inciting violence, and sowing discord.
  • It contributes to the stability of the elected administration, which would otherwise be vulnerable to attempts to overthrow it violently and illegally.
  • It aligns with judicial disobedience. An essential component of the executive is the elected government. As a result, government disobedience can be curbed.

Read More: Article 20 of the Indian Constitution

Sedition Laws in Other Countries

The law of sedition is not only prevalent in India but it is also used by the governments of other countries to punish whoever brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established.

Sedition Laws in the USA

Even the land of freedom has not refrained from employing sedition laws to quell opposition. The Federalist administration created the Aliens and Sedition laws, which were intended to target foreigners and non-citizens who sympathised with France and were residents of the United States of America, in response to the virtual war with France.

The Sedition Act was a part of this group of laws. Americans were prohibited from speaking, writing, or publishing any defamatory or slanderous statements regarding the federal government under the Sedition Act of 1798. As press publications were the primary political instrument for political parties, this led to the targeting of Democratic-Republican journalists. The public was extremely against this law. As a result, on March 3, 1801, the Sedition Act was repealed by the incoming Republican administration.

The Sedition Act of 1918 was enacted by the American government in the midst of World War I. The Act made it unlawful to encourage disloyalty among military personnel, treason to the government, the Constitution, the armed forces, or the flag, or to support nations at war with the United States. The US Supreme Court, however, overturned this Act. Treason and seditious conspiracy are currently crimes under Articles 2381 and 2384 of the Federal Criminal Code, respectively.

Read More: Right to Equality

Sedition laws in the United Kingdom

Sedition was considered to be the same as treason during the monarchy. The divine prerogative of the King and the ideals of feudal society were declared unquestionable in the Statute of Westminster of 1275. Because the State and the Church were considered to be one and the same, seditious libel was equated to blasphemous libel. With the Sedition Act of 1661, the United Kingdom made sedition a crime.

But in 1977, the Law Reforms Committee (now the Law Commission) released a report that advocated for the repeal of the sedition laws. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act of 2008, enacted by the democratic government, likewise eliminated the crime of blasphemous libel. Next this, the Coroners and Justice Act of 2009 repealed the laws against seditious libel and sedition the following year. It is significant to note that sedition is no longer a crime in the United Kingdom, on which Indian law is based.

Read More: Articles 12 and 13

Sedition Law UPSC

Sedition is a colonial statute that upholds the “King is Supreme” tenet. In today’s world, which values human liberty above all else, it has no place. To ensure that the right to dissent is exercised, sedition should be outlawed. Healthy disagreement should not be punished because it can aid in the country’s progress. However, sedition is only one instrument in a toolbox. The abuse of UAPA, NSA, preventative detention legislation, etc. would remain to limit the ability to dissent even when the sedition statute was repealed. The nation must promote a culture of discourse and tolerance for divergent viewpoints.

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Sedition Law FAQs

What is the meaning of Sedition?

A person incites or is likely to instigate violence or public unrest when they bring or seek to bring hatred, contempt, or disaffection against the government. It must be done using spoken words, signs, visuals, or another similar act.

What penalties are there for sedition?

Sedition is punishable by the following:
• Up to three years in prison
• Life in prison
• Life in prison and a fine
• Up to three years in prison and a fine,
• Just a fine are the possible sentences.

Is sedition no longer legal in India?

India still hasn't done away with sedition. It is currently suspended while the Supreme Court considers whether to abolish it.

Is sedition against the Constitution?

Sedition is not unlawful, according to previous decisions by the Supreme Court of India.

What makes sedition obsolete?

Sedition is out of date since it still has colonial overtones and denies individuals their freedom of expression and disagreement.

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