Section 124A is being used to suppress criticism and dissent and needs to be scrapped.
Section 124A or more popularly known as the Sedition law has been a topic of discussion in the Indian intellectual space for decades. Some people have used the law extensively for their own gains, some have suffered because of it, while some have spent their lives opposing it and demanding a change. The law directly affects our fundamental rights and inhibits us from exercising our rights to question and criticize the actions of our government that we choose.
History and Definition
The section 124A forms part of the Indian Penal Code enacted in 1860, under the British Raj. Section 124A was brought under the IPC in 1870. Throughout the British Raj, the section was used to suppress activists in favour of national independence, including Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi, both of whom were found guilty and imprisoned. In 1958, the Allahabad High Court and the Punjab high court struck down the law.
But in 1962, the Supreme Court of India brought back sedition law into the Constitution, interpreting the section to say that it only applies if there is “incitement to violence”. Then sedition was made a cognizable offence for the 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.
Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code today seeks to prosecute persons for sedition if their “words, either spoken or written or by any 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”. This means that any manner of criticism, any form of protest, any words spoken or written that are harsh, contemptuous and attempt to excite disaffection towards the government established by law are perceived to be seditious acts.
Contemporary Use and Misuse
The law has been used by multiple governments to target citizens. It is used to silence dissent, prosecute and persecute political rivals, target independent and mostly leftist journalists, academics, and authors. It is astonishing to learn that the sedition law in England was abolished in 2009 but in India, the draconian law is still in place. Gandhiji once called sedition the “prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”.
The law was used to suppress our freedom fighters including by considering holding meetings or conducting and participating in processions as seditious. And today it does the same. It is used by governments to undermine and suppress our freedom of speech and freedom to peacefully protest.
These two fundamental rights are the most important elements of any democracy. And that is exactly why both of them are recognised as unique fundamental rights. But it is ironic when these fundamental rights are limited and curbed by the Sedition law even when there may not be a clear relationship to a possible threat to the sovereignty and integrity of our nation.
Most recently the BJP government had used the sedition law to prosecute Disha Ravi who had edited and shared a “toolkit”. a toolkit is a collection of resources for front-line workers engaged in a task or campaign. Disha shared the toolkit to help the protestors protesting against the Farm bill introduced by the government. Retired Supreme Court Judge Justice Deepak Gupta in an interview with a news media organisation said that the contents were neither seditious nor unlawful. Her intentions were not to incite hate or make the protest unlawful. She had no contact whatsoever with persons involved in the violence that took place during the protests.
During the same protests in January this year, some journalists had shared “unverified” news of a person death on being shot. This was just a case of misinformation. It may be considered poor journalism but in no way can it be considered a crime or sedition.
Similarly, JNU students were charged with sedition three years ago when they apparently shouted ‘Bharat tere tukde tukde honge inshallah inshallah’. This alleged incident never led to an act of violence. The police have not yet successfully linked this incident to an act of violence even after years. Hence, this cannot be termed seditious.
These are just 3 of the numerous attempts of the BJP led Government to target its critics. Similarly, the Congress party had used the sedition law extensively. We cannot trust any government to mindfully use the law. While giving bail to Disha Ravi, the judge quoted former Chief Justice of India, Sir Maurice Gwyer, saying that the Law of Sedition is being used “to minister to the wounded vanity of governments”.
The journalists questioning the governments and their actions and powers are the backbones of our democratic system. The state of the democracy hence can be judged from the fact that India is ranked 142 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2020. Sedition is a colonial-era law that is often used to suppress citizens who want to exercise their democratic rights of dissent. India is about to approach the 75th year of independence and it is time that the sedition law is discarded. The Government through the judiciary has enough power to prosecute anyone who challenges the sovereignty and integrity of our nation. They cannot forever hide behind the Sedition law to cover up their mismanagement and shortcomings. The Government expects us to be obedient, unquestioning citizens, but that is not democracy. That is not India.
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