“Sedition Cases in India”

  • Category
    Polity & Governance
  • Published
    11th Mar, 2020

Issue

Context:

In the last two months, India has come across several cases of sedition being slapped against a range of people across the country. 

Background:

  • In India, sedition remains the most controversial offence out of all other offences.
  • Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was introduced by the British Raj in 1870.
  • The British brought in this law to crush the freedom struggle and terrorise those who might “wage war” against the government. 
  • In the 150 years since then, this draconian colonial relic, which even the British have now abolished, has been only misused.
  • Globally, sedition is increasingly viewed as a draconian law and was revoked in the United Kingdom in 2010.
  • In India itself, there have been two attempts, via private member bills, in the last decade to revoke it - but both efforts were thwarted by governments.
  • More recently in 2018, the 21st Law Commission of India issued a consultation paper asking for views on revoking sedition as an offence but the commission’s term ended before it could deliver its recommendations.
  • Over time, the Indian government’s stance has been consistent on sedition.

Analysis

What is Sedition?

  • The term ‘Sedition’ means ‘conduct or speech which results in mutiny against the authority of the State”. 
  • Sedition, which falls under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, is defined as any action that brings or attempts to bring hatred or contempt towards the government of India and has been illegal in India since 1870.
  • Sedition is when "any person 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".

The most famous victim of Sec 124A, tried in 1897, was Lokmanya Tilak for his writings in his newspaper Kesari. He was sentenced to prison, as was Mahatma Gandhi for his writings in Young India. Such cases reinforced the perception that this law was for muzzling freedom of speech and expression and browbeating government’s critics and activists. The government’s character changed in 1947, but its propensity for recourse to this law remains unchanged.

  • Sedition is a Non-Bailable, Cognizable offence and triable by Court of Session. This offence is not compoundable. It criminalizes speech that is regarded to be disloyal to or threatening to the state. 
  • Punishment: Imprisonment for Life + Fine or 3 years + Fine or Fine. 
  • A person charged under Sec 124 is barred from a government job, deprived of a passport and required to appear in court at all times as and when required.
  • The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), though, has only been collecting separate data on sedition cases since 2014.
  • In 2014, there were 47 cases of sedition but that number increased to 70 in 2018 (the latest year with available data).

Is it a restriction on freedom of speech?

  • Law of Sedition is a reasonable restriction on freedom of speech. It was drafted by Thomas Macaulay and introduced in 1870. 
  • In India, every citizen has been given the freedom to speak and express their views under Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution.
  • However, this freedom is not absolute and some reasonable restrictions have been imposed on freedom of speech and expressions under Article 19(2). 
  • Clause (2) of Article 19 of the Constitution of India enables the legislature to impose certain restrictions on free speech under the following heads:
    • Security of the State
    • Friendly relations with foreign states
    • Public order
    • Decency and morality
    • Contempt of court
    • Defamation
    • Incitement to an offence
    • Sovereignty and integrity of India

Learning from the data:

  • Recent National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data suggests that the number of sedition cases has increased in recent years as police in certain states clamp down on protesters.
  • Compared to other offences, sedition remains a rare crime (it accounts for less than 0.01% of all IPC crimes).
  • But within India, some parts are emerging as sedition hotspots. Assam and Jharkhand, for instance, with 37 sedition cases each, account for 32% of all sedition cases between 2014-2018. In Jharkhand, the police have used sedition to charge different types of protesters.
  • In January, more than 3,000 protesters against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) were charged with sedition while in 2019, more than 3,300 farmers were charged with sedition for protesting about land disputes.
  • Though police in these states and elsewhere are charging more people with sedition, few cases result in a conviction.
  • Since 2016, only four sedition cases have seen a conviction in court. One reason for this could be that sedition as an offence has no solid legal grounding in India.
  • The Indian Constitution lays out freedom of expression as a fundamental right which many legal scholars have argued prevents sedition from being an offence.

Unlawful Activities:

  • Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA):
  • Sedition is a colonial relic and a broadly worded preventive provision that should only be read as an emergency measure.
  • Partly to address this, in 1967, the government enacted the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
  • This was meant to be a more specific law intended to impose more reasonable restrictions on freedom of speech in the interests of sovereignty and integrity of India.
  • In 2018, there were 1,182 cases registered under UAPA. And almost all these cases (92%) were concentrated in five states (Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Jharkhand and Manipur).
  • Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act:
  • UAPA and sedition though are just two of the many offences that can be committed against the state.
  • Under the NCRB’s breakdown of offences against the state, the biggest offence comes under the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act.
  • The Act, which lays down the law about damage to public property, accounted for more than 80% of all offences against the state in 2018 and has increased since 2016.
  • Anti-national elements:
  • In addition to these offences, NCRB, starting in 2017, introduced a new category of crime: incidents of violence by “anti-national elements".
  • These anti-national elements- bucketed into four groups:
    • north-east insurgents
    • ‘jihadi’ terrorists
    • Naxalites
    • other terrorists
  • This category had 1,012 cases registered against them in 2018.

Sedition laws in international jurisdiction

  • The United Kingdom (UK) completely removed the seditious libel through the Coroners and Justice Act, 2009.
  • In Australia, following the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) the term sedition was removed and replaced with references to 'urging violence offences'.

Significance of the Law:

  • Toxifying the harmful elements: No doubt, the law has its utility in combating anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements.
  • Bringing stability: The law effectively protects the elected government from attempts to get overthrown with violence and illegal means. The continued existence of the government established by law is an essential condition of the stability of the State.

The other side of the coin:

  • Unsuitable for democracy: The Sedition law is a relic of colonial legacy and unsuited in a democracy like India. Right to question, criticize and change rulers is very fundamental to the idea of democracy. However, such questions get constructed as sedition.
  • Constraint on freedom: It is a constraint on the legitimate exercise of constitutionally guaranteed ‘freedom of speech and expression’.

Conclusion:

Section 124A will be completing its 150 years this year, and its continued presence is a reminder of many similarities between the colonial and the post-colonial Indian State. From its very beginning, this law aimed to strengthen the State vis-à-vis Indian people, and the continued use of this section to hound social and political activists is a glaring reminder, of how little has changed as far as the relationship between the Indian State and Indian people is concerned. This is high time the government should outline what could be done to get rid of this law and what course of action should the advocates of free speech follow to put pressure so that this draconian section be repealed.

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