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Pakistan court strikes down colonial-era ‘sedition’ law

  • Category
    Polity & Governance
  • Published
    7th Apr, 2023

Context

Recently, the Lahore High Court (LHC) annulled Section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) dealing with sedition. The Act was enacted in 1860 which was a sign of British colonial rule.

About India’s Sedition Law:

  • India’s sedition law is enshrined in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
  • Thomas Macaulay, who drafted the Indian Penal Code, had included the law on sedition; it was not added in the code enacted in 1860. 
  • Later in 1890,sedition was included as an offence under section 124A IPC through the Special Act XVII.
  • The punishment prescribed then,transportation “beyond the seas for the term of his or her natural life”, was amended to life imprisonment in 1955.
  • According to the section 124A, the charges could be put on whomever, 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 India.
  • He/She shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which a fine may be added; or, with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added; or, with fine.”

Sedition law during freedom Struggle:

  • The law was used to suppress the writings and speeches of Indian nationalists and freedom fighters.
  • The first application of the lawwas the trial of newspaper editor Jogendra Chandra Bose in 1891.
  • Other prominent examples of the application of the law include the trials of Tilak (1897)and Gandhi (1922).
  • Jawaharlal Nehru, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, and Abul Kalam Azad were also charged with sedition.

Present scenario:

  • Sedition was made a cognizable offence forthe first time in history in India during the tenure of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1973, that is, arrest without a warrant was now permissible.
  • In 1962 the Supreme Court of India interpreted the section to apply only if there is, say, "incitement to violence" or "overthrowing a democratically elected government through violent means.
  • As of 11th May 2022this law has been put on temporary hold by Supreme Court of India citing re-examination.

Legal challenges to IPC Section 124A:

  • As early as 1950,the Supreme Court in Romesh Thapar v State of Madras held that “criticism of the government exciting disaffection or bad feelings towards it, is not to be regarded as a justifying ground for restricting the freedom of expression and of the press.
  • Subsequently, two high courts— the Punjab and Haryana High Court in Tara Singh Gopi Chand v. The State (1951), and the Allahabad High Court in Ram Nandan v. State of Uttar Pradesh (1959) — declared that Section 124A of the IPC was primarily a tool for colonial masters to quell discontent in the country and declared the provision unconstitutional.
  • However, in 1962, the issue came up before the Supreme Court in Kedarnath Singh v State of Bihar.
  • Kedar Nath Singh versus State of Bihar (1962):
  • In Kedar Nath Singh versus State of Bihar (1962), the Supreme Court had made it clear that ‘strong words used to express disapprobation of the measures of the Government with a view to their improvement or alteration by lawful means’ did not amount to sedition.
  • This ruling puts the onus on law enforcers to come up with indisputable evidence of incitement to violence or disturbance of public peace.
  • The court also issued seven “guidelines”, underlining when critical speech cannot be qualified as sedition.

Law Commission of India on Sedition Law:

  • In August 2018, the Law Commission of India published a consultation paper recommending that it is time to re-think or repeal the Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code that deals with sedition.

Sedition laws in other countries

  • In the United Kingdom, the sedition law was officially repealed under Section 73 of the Coroners and Justice Act, 2009, citing a chilling effect on freedom of speech and expression.
  • Australia repealed its sedition law in 2010.
  • In 2021, Singapore also repealed the law citing that several new legislations can sufficiently address the actual need for sedition law without its chilling effects.
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