The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to examine the constitutional validity of the penal law on sedition, which, a plea filed in the matter claimed, is often used to stifle dissent and valid criticism against government functionaries.
A bench, headed by justice Uday U Lalit, sought a response from Centre on a plea challenging the constitutional validity of sedition law while also calling for assistance of attorney general KK Venugopal considering the significance of the matter.
The bench, which included justices Indira Banerjee and K M Joseph, issued notices while hearing the petition filed by two journalists and argued by senior counsel Colin Gonsalves, who challenged the validity of Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which penalises the crime of sedition punishable with either imprisonment ranging from three years to a lifetime, a fine, or both.
The petition, filed by Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha and Kanhaiya Lal Shukla – working in Manipur and Chhattisgarh, respectively, said Section 124-A infringed on the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression which is guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
The journalists said that they were charged with sedition for their comments, on the social networking website Facebook, in which they sought to question certain policies and actions of the governments in the states and at the Centre.
“There is frequent phenomenon of misuse, misapplication and abuse of Section 124-A since 1962…The sections of sedition have been repealed in comparative post-colonial democratic jurisdictions around the world. While India calls itself a ‘democracy’, throughout the democratic world the offence of sedition has been condemned as undemocratic, undesirable and unnecessary,” the plea stated.
Citing the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the validity of the law in 1962 in the case of Kedar Nath Singh Vs State of Bihar, the petitioners said that the court may have been correct in its finding nearly six decades ago, but the law no longer passed constitutional muster.
India’s sedition law was introduced by the British in 1870 but the Constituent Assembly decided to drop it from the Constitution in 1948. The word “sedition” disappeared from the Constitution when it was adopted on November 26, 1949 and Article 19(1)(a) gave absolute freedom of speech and expression. Section 124A, however, stayed in the Indian Penal Code.
In 1951, Jawaharlal Nehru brought in the first amendment of the Constitution to limit the freedom under Article 19(1)(a) and enacted Article 19(2) to empower the State to put curbs in the form of “reasonable restrictions” on the right to free speech.
Through the 1962 judgment in Kedar Nath case, however, a constitution bench upheld the validity of the sedition law under the IPC and also defined the scope of sedition. The constitution bench held that Section 124A only penalised words that reveal an intent or tendency to disturb law and order or that seem to incite violence. This definition has been taken as precedent for all matters pertaining to Section 124A ever since.
According to the data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), cases of sedition and under the stringent UAPA for terror cases showed a rise in 2019, but only 3% of the sedition cases resulted in convictions.
The year 2019 saw a 25% increase in the number of sedition cases and a 41% increase in arrests over the previous year. A total of 93 cases of sedition were reported in 2019, with 96 arrests and charge sheets filed in 76 cases, as against 70 cases, 56 arrests and 27 chargesheets the previous year.
The ministry of home affairs (MHA), in a written reply in February, informed the Rajya Sabha that out of the 96 people arrested for sedition in 2019, only two were convicted for the crime, while 29 were acquitted. Investigations and trials are ongoing in the rest of the cases.