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Sedation Once Again Explained by the Supreme Court
Sep 08, 2016

The Supreme Court said that all authorities across the country would be bound by the Kedar Nath Judgment of the apex court, which limits the scope of filing sedition cases under the provisions of Indian Penal Code.

A bench of Justices Dipak Misra and U.U. Lalit gave the direction after Prashant Bhushan appeared on the behalf of the petitioners –NGO Common Cause and S. P. Udayakumar (an anti-nuclear activist against whom sedition charges have been made) –and said that there has been an increase in the number of sedition cases being filed.

Prashant Bhushan argued before the bench that the law of sedition is being grossly misused, misapplied and abused by the authorities and that the authorities are not following the judgment in Kedar Nath case which states that Section 124A (sedition) is only applicable where there is violence or incitement to violence in the alleged act of sedition.

Taking note of this submission, the bench in a brief order said,“We are of the considered opinion that the authorities while dealing with the offences under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code shall be guided by the principles laid down by the Constitution Bench in Kedar Nath Singh vs. State of Bihar case.

The petitioners were concerned at the increasing number of ‘sedition’ cases being filed across the country, the latest being the slaping of a charge against Amnesty International India for organising a debate on Kashmir and against Kannada actor-turned-politician, Ramya  for her ‘Pakistan is not hell remark,’ and challenged this provision in the Indian Penal Code. They said there has been an increase in the number of cases of sedition against intellectuals, activists and students.

The petition was for the Supreme Court to address the misuse and misapplication of IPC Section 124A (sedition law) by the Centre and various state governments, which has led to routine persecution of students, journalists and intellectuals engaged in social activism. It submitted that these charges are framed with a view to instil a fear and to scuttle dissent and are in complete violation of the scope of sedition law as laid down by constitution bench judgment of Supreme Court.

In the various cases that have been filed in recent years, the charges of sedition against the accused have failed to stand up to judicial scrutiny. The petitioner therefore sought strict compliance with the constitution bench judgment of the Supreme Court in Kedar Nath Case in which the scope of sedition as a penal offence was laid down and it was held that the gist of the offence of sedition is “incitement to violence” or the “tendency or the intention to create public disorder.

It was submitted that those actions, which do not involve violence or the tendency to create public disorder—such as the organisation of debates/discussions, drawing of cartoons and criticism of the government–do not constitute sedition.

Section 124A:
Section 124A of the IPC states, “whoever 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 shall be punished with imprisonment for life to which fine may be added or with imprisonment which may extend to three years.”

More than 50 years since the Kedar Nath judgment, Section 124A of the IPC was being allowed to be used irrespective of whether the alleged act or words are, in fact, seditious acts, or constituting a tendency to cause public disorder or incitement to violence.

In carrying out arrests and slapping charges, the police and the governments have rarely, if ever, respected this restriction. Successive governments have blatantly used Section 124A to stifle the voice of dissent and to further their political goals.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report of 2014, as many as 47 sedition cases were reported across nine Indian states in 2014 alone. Many of these cases did not involve violence or incitement to violence, which is a pre-requisite for a sedition charge. It was submitted that as per NCRB figures, a total of 58 people were arrested in connection with these cases, but the government managed only one conviction.

In 1979, India ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which sets forth internationally recognised standards for the protection of freedom of expression. However, misuse of sedition law under Section 124A and the arbitrary slapping of charges continue to restrict speech in ways that are inconsistent with the ICCPR.

In the Kedar Nath judgment, the apex court unequivocally narrowed the scope of Section 124A, but it continues to be misused, thereby making it imperative for this court to issue necessary directions and guidelines to uphold its decision in Kedar Nath which is also compatible with India’s international obligations.

What is ‘Sedition’ in Indian Penal Code?

Under Section 124A of the IPC, the offence of sedition is committed when any person by words or otherwise brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the government established by law. Three explanations added to the provision lay down that while “disaffection” shall include disloyalty and all feelings of enmity, comments without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, will not constitute an offence.

Sedition is a cognisable, non-bailable and non-compoundable offence under the law, entailing life imprisonment as maximum punishment, with or without a fine. Sedition was not a part of the original IPC that was enacted in 1860—it was introduced in 1870, when it was said it had been dropped from the original IPC draft by mistake.

What is not sedition?

The court ruled that disapproval of the measures of government with a view to their improvement or alteration by lawful means is not sedition. It held that “comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of actions of the Government, without exciting those feelings which generate the inclination to cause public disorder by acts of violence” would not attract the penal offence.

The court added that “commenting in strong terms upon the measures or acts of Government, or its agencies, so as to ameliorate the condition of the people or to secure the cancellation or alteration of those acts or measures by lawful means, that is to say, without exciting those feelings of enmity and disloyalty which imply excitement to public disorder or the use of violence,” is not sedition.

“A citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the Government, or its measures, by way of criticism or comment, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the Government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder.”


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