Author: Yagyanseni Acharya
Student, Vellore Institute of Technology, Chennai
In light of recent events throughout the country, it has become necessary for the government authorities to review the age-old law that has been part of the constitution since colonial rule; thus, it urged the Supreme Court not to waste its time examining the constitutional validity of the Penal law on sedition because the central government has decided to ' re-examine and re-consider the provision of this controversial law in favour of protection '.
The choice was made after a bench consisting of Chief Justice N V Ramana, Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli announced that they would listen to the arguments regarding the legal question of whether the claims against the colonial-era penal code should be forwarded to a larger bench for reconsideration of the 1962 ruling of a five-judge constitution bench in the KedarNath Singh case.
Numerous arguments contesting the legality of the law on sedition have been heard by the supreme court.
THE HISTORY OF SEDITION
Under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, a person will be charged with sedition if they use words, signs, or other visual representation to "inspire or seek to incite disaffection against the Government constituted by law in India." Sir Thomas Macaulay included the provision in his first proposal in 1837, and it has deep colonial roots. The clause was not included when the IPC was created in 1860. The provision, which dealt with dissidents, mutinies, and rebellions, was subsequently amended in 1870 and was based on the English Treason Felony Act 1848.
Before India gained its independence, the law was used to silence dissenting opinions in the country's society, and some freedom fighters, including Bal Gangadhar Tilak, were put on trial under this clause.
On multiple instances, Indian courts have addressed the interpretation of Section 124A and defined the grounds under which a statement may be ruled seditious. In Kedarnath v. the State of Bihar, for example, the Supreme Court defined sedition as "activities including encouragement to violence or the purpose or inclination to create public commotion or cause disruption of public peace." Furthermore, in Balwant Singh v. Union of India, it was specifically stated that "every declaration of criticism is not sedition, and the true meaning of the speech must be considered before classifying it as seditious action.". Similar to this, the Delhi High Court said in Pankaj Butalia v. Central Board of Film Certification that sedition must be considered with the speaker's intent in mind and that the speech must be evaluated "holistically and fairly without giving undue weight to isolated sections." As a result, the judiciary has over time offered guidelines on what sedition is and how not all dissent or criticism constitutes sedition.
According to numerous sources, more than 13,000 persons have been the targets of about 800 sedition prosecutions that have been brought in India since 2010. The number of convictions for sedition has remained modest despite an increase in cases. The low conviction rates show that Section 124A is being misused and that cases are being brought even when the necessary ingredients are not there. The clause has been used to book several unsuccessful artists, journalists, and dissidents. For instance, because he had Naxal literature in his possession, doctor and Adivasi campaigner Binayak Sen were accused of sedition. Similar to how Aseem Trivedi was charged with sedition for criticizing the corrupt and unethical bureaucracy in the nation. The contentious law from the British era has faced numerous challenges in recent years, but it has prevailed in every instance.
UAPA and SEDITION
Sedition's core offense has gradually and covertly been "snuck" into the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, where it is defined in greater detail and subject to harsher penalties than in section 124A. If the court rules that Section 124A of the IPC is unconstitutional because it protects (and not forbids) speech and expression that merely sows discontentment the UAPA will also need to be changed to remove the section 124A imports. The court's decision has confirmed that it is a "high burden" for an accused person who is ordinarily imprisoned to show that the prosecution's allegations against him are unfounded. According to its ruling, a trial court may deny bail if it determines that the pertinent evidence provided by the investigating agency "indicates that there are substantial grounds for believing that the accusation is accurate prima facie." Therefore, although a huge relief, the suspension of Section 124A would scarcely result in freedom for anyone facing both Section 124A and UAPA charges in the same case or separately. They might live in ongoing prison under the post-colonial UAPA. Nearly 53% of those detained under the UAPA in 2018, 2019, and 2020 were reportedly under the age of 30, according to information provided by the Home Ministry to the Parliament last year.
CONTROVERSY SURROUNDING SEDITION AT PRESENT
The National Crime Records Bureau reports that between 2016 and 2019, there were 160 percent more cases filed under section 124A of the IPC than there were convictions, which decreased from 33.3 percent to 3.3 percent.
This demonstrates how the State has been misusing this clause by bringing frivolous or baseless cases.
The current union government took a strong stance in favour of the sedition law, but recently, after volunteering to examine the law, they have changed their minds. The modifications, if any, made as a result of the review may be a comfort for the media given their ongoing challenges and complexities in treading lightly to avoid being accused of seditious speech when offering constructive criticism of the administration.