‘Sedition’ is ‘acts or speech that incite a rebellion against the state’s authority’. The Law of Sedition corresponds to Section 124A of the 1860 IPC, which is considered an appropriate restriction on freedom of expression.
Sedition is a serious crime under Indian Penal law and pertains to people raising voices against national sovereignty.
The stringent law was once seen as a threat to democracy during and even after the colonial era because it can be exploited to curb voices against the unfair practices of sovereign governments. The Sedition Act was used by the British to imprison freedom fighters, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who criticised the colonial government’s policies. After independence, the Constitution’s drafters spent a lot of time exploring various aspects of this colonial law.
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What is the Sedition Act?
Although the exact act is not specified in the Sedition Act, the Indian Penal Code of 1860 has provisions that define sedition and punishment for engaging in seditious acts.
‘Sedition’ is described as disloyalty in action. The purpose of a seditious act is to induce dissatisfaction and opposition to the government and despise judicial administration.
Sedition is a crime against society and includes all practices that lead to disorderly behaviour as well as the civil war that despises sovereignty and promotes public disorder.
Sedition is a cognisable offence under the special provisions of the Indian Penal Code, which allows police to arrest without a warrant and initiate an investigation without prior approval of the court of law.
Historical Background and Its Origin
In the colonial era, Section 124A was not part of the 1860 Indian penal Code. However, this section was inserted into the IPC by the Indian Penal Code (Revised) Act of 1870.
The amending act of 1898 subsequently replaced this provision with Section 124A.
Under English law, under the old IPC, ‘trying to incite feelings of excitement or dissatisfaction was considered as sedition’. The following points explain the origin of the Sedition Act:
- The origin of the Indian Sedition Act is related to the Wahhab movement in the 19th century.
- It was an Islamic revival movement led by Syed Ahmed Barelvi.
- The movement has been active since 1830, but after the 1857 rebellion, it turned into armed resistance against the British.
- British troops labelled the Wahhabis rebels and conducted military operations against the Wahhabis.
What Does Section 124 A State?
Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code 1860 states, ‘Anyone who attempts to induce or induce hatred or contempt, or arouses or dissatisfaction, verbally or in writing, by sign, or by visible indication, or in any other way towards the Government will be punished for life imprisonment.’
Essentials Elements of Sedition
According to the IPC, ‘seditious acts’ must include the following elements:
- Words that can be written and spoken or letters that have visible expressions
- Incite hatred/contempt/dissatisfaction to the Indian Government
- Lead to ‘direct violence’ or mass turmoil
According to the court’s interpretation of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code of 1860, the following acts were considered ‘incitement’:
- Create a slogan for the Government
- Speeches made by humans need to incite violence / public disability to be considered inflammatory. It is further interpreted to include ‘incitement to threaten violence’
- Written work that incites violence and causes public turmoil
Punishment Under Section 124A
The offence of sedition defined under section 124A is non-bailable and cognisable. The offence is punishable with minimum imprisonment for 3 years extending up to life imprisonment, or with a fine.
A person charged under this act is not authorised to hold a passport. Furthermore, a person charged under this provision cannot move anywhere outside the permissible limits without the court’s permission and should be present in the court whenever required.
Defences Available Against the Punishment
Besides providing punishments for sedition, criminal law also provides defences to be exempted from criminal liability in case of the following circumstances:
- The individual did not sign, express, speak, write, or take action
- The individual did not express contempt or attempt disaffection
- Such disaffection or incitement should not be against the Government.
Relevance of the Law
- Reasonable Restrictions: The Constitution of India imposes reasonable restrictions on the right to ensure responsible exercise and equal access to all citizens based on Article 19 (2).
- Unity and Honesty: The Sedition Law helps governments fight anti-national, separatist, and terrorist elements.
- National Stability: The law helps protect elected governments from attempts to overthrow the Government by violence or illegal means. The continuity of Government established by law is essential for national stability.
Flaws in the Law
The terms ‘incite hatred and contempt’ or ‘try to incite dissatisfaction’ is open to interpretation. The law allows police and governments to harass innocent citizens.
Due to its inadequate definition, the Sedition Act does not explicitly state actions considered inflammatory and does not provide a high-level view of what may be considered inflammatory. The law can be misused to intentionally frame an individual.
The issue was recently addressed by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud while preventing the Government of Andhra Pradesh from taking unfavourable actions against the two Telugu news channels charged under Section 124A (Incitement) of the IPC. Justice Chandrachud remarked, “Everything cannot be seditious. It is time we define what is sedition and what is not.”
Sedition and Its Conflict with Article 19(1)(a)
Although free speech has been recognised to be a fundamental right globally, it may be intentionally undermined by various elements of society. In India, such rights are recognised in Part III and Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.
This is the right of citizens to collect information with others and exchange opinions and opinions both inside and outside India.
The court is empowered to act as a guarantor and guardian of the rights of citizens. Article 19(1)(a) protects ‘freedom of speech and expression’, but restrictions under Article 19(2) bounds it, which stipulates statutory limits on the right to freedom of speech and expression.
Reasonable restrictions are prescribed under Article 19(2) Constitution of India, that is, interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or concerning contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.
In the case of Niharendu Dutt, the federal court interpreted Section 124A of the IPC under the British Sedition Law and ruled that the tendency to disturb public order and morals is integral to Section 124A.
The Privy Council ruled that under Section 124A, inciting violence or confusing public order and morals is prohibited. The State directly challenged the effectiveness of Section 124A of the IPC.
The 1951 Constitutional Amendment (1st Amendment) introduced two amendments related to freedom of speech and expression.
The restrictions in Article 19 (1) (a) must be proportional. Therefore, the following points reflect the question of whether Section 124A of IPC contradicts Article 19(1)(a):
- Section 124A of the IPC is highly constitutionally empowered unless it violates the fundamental right to freedom of speech in Article 19 (1) (a) and is saved by the phrase ‘for the benefit of public policy’.
- Section 124A is not invalid because the phrase ‘for the benefit of public policy’ has a broader meaning and should not be limited to just one aspect of public policy.
- Section 124 A of IPC is partially invalid and partially applicable.
Kedarnath Singh Vs. the State of Bihar
The Supreme Court upheld the validity of Section 124A and limited its application to acts with the intent or tendency to create disorder, disrupt law and order, or incite violence.
The law was found to be constitutional and contained provisions for written or verbal language with the intent of destroying the Government by violent means.
Citizens can criticise the Government unless they incite violence against it, intending to cause public turmoil.
Balwant Singh and Anr Vs. State of Punjab
After the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the offender had raised the slogan ‘Khalistan Zindabad’ outside a cinema hall and was charged under Section 124A of IPC for seditious acts.
The court ruled that two individuals casually raising slogans could not be said to be exciting disaffection towards the Government. Section 124A would not apply to the circumstances of this case.
Romesh Thapar Vs. the State of Madras
The petitioner alleged in the Supreme Court that Madras State had issued an order banning his Cross Roads newspaper. This ban violated the fundamental right to freedom of expression given by Article 19 (1) of the Constitution.
The Supreme Court ruled that Article 19(2), which imposed restrictions, was only imposed in the event of public security issues and is not considered constitutionally valid if such a problem does not occur.
The Supreme Court overturned Madras State’s order and granted the petitioner’s motion under Article 32 of the Constitution.
When crimes are committed against the State or Government, it disrupts public order and morals. According to NCRB, between 2014 and 2016, 165 people were arrested on charges of sedition. The sedition laws must explicitly include words that meet the restrictions of Article 19(2).
The purpose of limiting speech under the Sedition law is to protect national security. Laws against hate speech must be interpreted and applied fairly and carefully under the guidelines of the Supreme Court.
An increase in the number of hate speeches reflects the oppressive treatment meted out by the Government. Opposition parties have demanded the abolition of the sedition law because it limits freedom of speech and expression under the premise that the country has sufficient laws to deal with internal and external threats to India.