SEDITION: A DISSUASIVE EFFECT ON ARTICLE 19 OF THE CONSTITUTION
THE HISTORY OF THE SEDITION LAW
When the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was drafted in 1860, sedition was not originally a part of it. Sedition was added to the IPC in the year 1870, and at that time, the Wahhabi movement was going on which aimed to overthrow the British Government. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 deals with sedition. The provision of the sedition law provides that whosoever through his words, whether spoken, written or any other format, promotes any hatred, contempt or disaffection against the Government of India established by law, shall be found guilty under sedition and can be sentenced to three years in jail or life imprisonment or both.
However, the principal objective of the law of sedition was to deal with the offences against the State. The people of India were under illegal British occupation and they waged an ideological battle to overthrow the British rules. Nevertheless, the first step had to be propaganda which means that they had to carry on with their educative propaganda. They started educating the masses to overthrow the illegal British occupation with the help of speeches, writings, articles and newspapers. They started informing the people that, they had to come together, on the same lines for India’s independence. The British wanted to stifle the voice of the Indian freedom movement and decided to criminalize freedom of speech and expression. For this very purpose, the sedition law was incorporated in the Indian Penal Code, 1860. It can therefore be said that the primary objective was to curb nationalist feelings from getting developed amongst the Indians by any means.
PRE-INDEPENDENCE CASES UNDER SEDITION
Bangobasi case (1891) is known as the first trial case under sedition, wherein the editor of the newspaper was booked for criticising the ‘Age of Consent Bill’ via an article, on the grounds of arousing disaffection against the British Government.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Mahatma Gandhi are the prominent personalities who were charged under sedition. Bal Gangadhar Tilak pleaded before the judges that he was not promoting disaffection against the Government established by law. However, the Court found him guilty and stated that there is an absence of affection, that renders him eligible for a term of 6 years jail under sedition. His case brought several changes in the meaning of sedition law and attempts were made to find a balance between sedition and freedom to criticize the State. Further, Mahatma Gandhi was charged under sedition after the Non-Co-operation Movement. He happily pleaded guilty and said that “The Government designed Section 124A to suppress the liberty of the citizen“. He further added that “Affection cannot be measured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so as long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence.”
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SEDITION LAW WHILE DRAFTING CONSTITUTION
India attained independence in the year 1947 and was in the process of framing the new Constitution for the people of this country. The Committee on the Fundamental Rights, headed by Sardar Patel, added sedition as one of the restrictions under Freedom of speech and expression provided in Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. Constitution provided its citizens with the freedom of speech and expression, but it was not meant to be absolute. There were to be reasonable restrictions on such freedom and one such restriction was sedition. However, when sedition as a ground for restriction was introduced in the Draft Constitution, many people in the Constituent Assembly protested, except two prominent members of the Constituent Assembly, Sardar Patel and C. Rajagopalachari.
Ultimately, sedition as a ground for reasonable restriction was dropped. Currently, there are eight grounds of reasonable restriction i.e., public order, the sovereignty of the country, contempt of court, incitement to violence, so on and so forth. Nevertheless, sedition is not a ground, however it is still mentioned under 124A of IPC, 1860. The offence of sedition is cognizable, non-compoundable and non-bailable However, Article 13 of the Constitution connotes that if any law, even if it has been passed before Independence, is inconsistent with the Fundamental Rights as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, will be declared unconstitutional.
POST-INDEPENDENCE CASES UNDER SEDITION
The constitutional validity of the sedition law was challenged in the case of Kedarnath Singh v. State of Bihar. The Supreme Court of India held that the sedition law under IPC, 1860 is valid but they narrowed down the interpretation of it. It ruled that sedition and freedom of speech and expression cannot be in the same breadth and gave precedence to freedom of speech and expression, which can be exercised, as long as the act does not incite people to violence. Any intention to incite people to disturb public order is listed as one of the reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution. In this case, the constitutional validity of sedition of law was kept intact but the interpretation of sedition was compressed.
In the Pankaj Butalia v. Central Board of Film Certification and Ors. case, the issue was whether a speech or word is seditious or the real intention of those words has to be considered. The Apex Court ruled that while examining any offence under Section 124A of IPC, 1860, the intention of the language with which the seditious statement is made, has to be looked at exhaustively and reasonably without focusing on isolated passages.
SEDITION AND FREEDOM OF SPEECH & EXPRESSION
There was a section of the Sikh community in Punjab that wanted an independent country called Khalistan for the Sikhs. In the 1980s, operation Blue Star was launched to flush out terrorists (people who wanted a different independent state called Khalistan inside the Indian Republic but had taken up arms and resorted to violence) from the Golden temple. The people who raised the slogan “Raj Karega Khalsa, Khalistan Zindabad” were charged under sedition for promoting disaffection against the Government. The matter went to the Court via Balwant Singh v. State of Punjab, on the day Indira Gandhi got assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard. The Court held that mere slogans, no matter how unpalatable they are, will not be deemed as sedition. It is settled that unless and until there is an intention to incite or calling people to raise arms to overthrow the government of the day, there is no sedition. All accused were acquitted.
Later in the landmark case Shreya Singhal vs. UOI case, perhaps for the first time, the Supreme Court defined sedition and stated that “Advocating or propagating any idea is freedom of speech and expression until it incites people to violence or creates disorder. If there is a breakdown of public order or violation of the peace and tranquility in the State, will be charged under sedition.” Hence, the Supreme Court ruling cleared the law. No matter how unpalatable the speeches or words are, including the highly problematic slogans such as “Bharat Ki Barbadi tak jang rahegi and Manipur mange azadi, Nagaland mange azadi “, it cannot be considered as sedition.
Although the law and Apex Court rulings have made the interpretation clear, yet the law of sedition is being misused by the police. It was seen that the student activists in JNU were arrested. Activists in Assam, protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act, were charged with sedition. It is for this gross misuse, that people are asking for the sedition law to be scrapped altogether. If we look back in history, although the sedition law in India was introduced by the UK, in 2009 sedition law was completely abolished in the UK. It is therefore concluded that the law of sedition is a relic of colonial error, and should be obliterated. It was also criticized by Jawaharlal Nehru in a Parliamentary Debate on free speech in 1951, wherein he mentioned that sedition law “is highly objectionable and obnoxious…the sooner we get rid of it the better.”