In the recent past, Section 124A, also known as the Sedition Act, has been a matter of immense debate and discussion. In the recent environment of protests against the CAA, this Act has been repeatedly exploited by the Central and State governments to silence voices of dissent. The incident in Mysuru last month, when a young student who was participating in an anti-CAA protest, holding a poster stating “Free Kashmir” was charged with sedition. In this context, it becomes important to discuss the relevance of this Act.
Sedition is an act that brings or attempts to bring hatred or contempt, excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government. As per this section, a person is liable to be punished with imprisonment for life or imprisonment up to three years with fine or both. Many critics have argued that the use of this Act by the government might go beyond reasonable restrictions provided under our fundamental rights, as per Article 19 of the Constitution.
There is an apprehension that this Section can be used by the government of the day to suppress political dissent, and constructive criticism of the government and its policies, thereby stifling democratic governance. Countries like the UK and Australia have already abolished sedition laws, considering them draconian.
If we look at the origin of the Act, it was primarily a colonial idea to suppress any voice of discontent against the coloniser’s policies. British colonial governance rested on silencing any kind of political dissent. Section 124A IPC was added through a special act XVII of 1870 and in 1898, it was made a punishable offence. Many Indian leaders like Gandhi and Tilak were punished under this Act.
Many judicial pronouncements have time to time made it clear what an act of sedition is. The verdicts in Romesh Thappar‘s and Kanhaiya Kumar‘s case redefined a seditious act only if it had the following essential ingredients:
In the A.K Gopalam Vs State of Kerala and Shreya Singhal Vs State, it was elaborated what does and does not amount to sedition. Political dissent, peaceful protest, right to offend, a non-consistent thought with the government and its policies, expressing different ideas of what constitutes the Indian nation or an expression of frustration over the state of affairs, cannot be considered sedition.
Since sedition is an offence against the State, a higher standard of proof must be applied to convict a person of this offence. It must be invoked for the gravest of offences against the State. Dissent acts as a safety valve in a vibrant democracy, and every restriction on free speech and liberty must be carefully imposed and weigh its reasonableness.
Debates and discussions with respect to essential questions like the need of sedition law in a modern democratic society vis-a-vis freedom of speech and redefining sedition need to be sought out among legal luminaries, lawmakers, governments, NGOs and other stakeholders.