It’s time we define what is and is not sedition: SC

By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Jun 01, 2021 05:27 AM IST

India’s sedition law has an interesting past -- it was introduced by the British in 1870, and almost dropped from the Constitution in 1948 after discussions of the Constituent Assembly.

Concerned over the misuse of India’s sedition law, the Supreme Court on Monday said that it will define the contours of the colonial era penal provision to indicate what does and does not constitute sedition.

Supreme Court (REUTERS)
Supreme Court (REUTERS)

“Everything cannot be seditious. It is time we define what is sedition and what is not,” said a bench headed by justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud as it restrained the Andhra Pradesh government from taking adverse action against two Telugu news channels booked under Section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

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“We are of the view that the ambit and parameters of the provisions of Sections 124A, 153A (promoting enmity between classes) and 505 (statements creating or promoting enmity) of the IPC would require interpretation, particularly in the context of the right of the electronic and print media to communicate news, information and the rights, even those that may be critical of the prevailing regime in any part of the nation,” said the court in its order.

News channels TV5 and ABN Andhrajyothi have been named accused, along with rebel YSR Congress member of Parliament Raghurama Krishnam Raju, for aiding him in an alleged hate speech to promote disaffection against the government and commit seditious activities.

The bench, which included justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat, went through the transcripts of the speech given by Raju, who was granted bail by a different bench of the Supreme Court on May 21.

History of the law(Hindustan Times)
History of the law(Hindustan Times)

“Is this seditious? This (FIR) is nothing but muzzling the media,” remarked the bench, as senior counsel Shyam Divan, appearing for TV5, read out Raju’s speech, while pointing out that the attempt was to silence a part of the local media which criticised the YS Jagan Mohan Reddy-led government in the state for handling of the pandemic. He added that there were several other channels and news portals that telecast this speech, but only a select few were named in the first information report (FIR) by invoking section 120B (criminal conspiracy) of IPC.

Representing ABN Andhrajyothi, senior advocate Sidharth Luthra said that it was high time the apex court lay down the contours of section 124A since several states were invariably slapping sedition cases against the media and other individuals.

At this, justice Chandrachud recounted a comment made by him a few minutes ago, when the bench was hearing the suo motu (on its own) case on supply of essential medicines and vaccines during the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic.

Referring to images on a TV channel of two persons throwing a Covid-positive body into a river in Uttar Pradesh’s Balrampur, justice Chandrachud had sarcastically said: “I don’t know whether a complaint has been filed against the news channel or not under the sedition charge for publishing and broadcasting these photographs.”

The judge added that he made this comment earlier as an aside since he had in mind this matter in which news channels were made co-accused in the sedition case. The bench then issued notices to the state government, seeking replies within four weeks while making it clear that there shall be no coercive action against the employees or staff of the news channels in connection with the case.

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On April 30, another bench of the top court agreed to examine constitutional validity of the penal law on sedition in India, while seeking assistance of attorney general KK Venugopal in the wake of the significance of the matter and issues of constitutional interpretation involved.

That bench issued notices to the Centre and states while hearing a petition filed jointly by journalists Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha and Kanhaiya Lal Shukla, challenging the validity of Section 124 A, which penalises sedition as punishable with either imprisonment ranging from three years to a lifetime, a fine, or both. This case will be heard next in July.

History of the law

India’s sedition law has an interesting past -- it was introduced by the British in 1870, and almost dropped from the Constitution in 1948 after discussions of the Constituent Assembly. The word “sedition” disappeared from the Constitution on November 26, 1949 and Article 19 (1)(a) gave absolute freedom of speech and expression. However, Section 124A continued to stay in IPC.

In 1951, Jawaharlal Nehru brought in the first amendment of the Constitution to limit the freedom under Article 19(1)(a) and enacted Article 19(2) to empower the State to put curbs in the form of “reasonable restrictions” on right to free speech. In its judgment in the Kedar Nath case in 1962, a Constitution bench upheld the validity of the sedition law under IPC and also defined the scope of it. It held that Section 124A only penalised words that reveal an intent or tendency to disturb law and order or that seem to incite violence. This definition has been taken as precedent for all matters pertaining to section 124A ever since.

According to the data from the National Crime Records Bureau, uploaded on its website, cases of sedition and under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act showed a rise in 2019, but only 3% of the sedition cases resulted in convictions. A total of 93 cases of sedition were reported in 2019, with 96 arrests and charge sheets filed in 76 cases, as against 70 cases, 56 arrests, and 27 charge sheets the previous year. The ministry of home affairs, in a written reply in February, informed the Rajya Sabha that out of the 96 people arrested for sedition in 2019, only two were convicted for the crime, while 29 were acquitted. Investigations and trials are ongoing in the case of the rest.

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