Supreme Court puts 152-year-old colonial-era sedition law on hold
This came a day after the court set a 24-hour deadline for the Centre to decide if the Indian Penal Code Section 124A can be put on hold “to protect people” from arrests until the government reviews the law
NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Wednesday put on hold the 152-year-old colonial-era penal provision of sedition while emphasising the need to preserve the civil liberty of the citizens. This came a day after the court set a 24-hour deadline for the Centre to decide if the Indian Penal Code (IPC)’s Section 124A can be put on hold “to protect people” from arrests until the government reviews the law.
In an interim order, a Chief Justice of India NV Ramana-led bench said it would be appropriate to put the provision in abeyance until the Centre reviews the non bailable section punishable with jail term ranging from three years to the life term.
“It will be appropriate not to use this provision of law till further re-examination is over. We hope and expect the Centre and states will desist from registering any FIR [First Information Report] under Section 124A or initiate proceedings under the same till the re-examination is over,” said the bench, which also comprised justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli.
The court said those jailed under the penal provision or being prosecuted can approach the trial courts to adjudicate their grievances expeditiously. It rejected the Centre’s request against staying the operation of the provision. The court said it must balance civil liberty and sovereignty of the state in the wake of several instances of abuse of the law.
The court said the Centre is at liberty to issue additional guidelines to states and Union territories (UTs) on checking the misuse of the law.
Earlier, solicitor general Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, argued that Section 124A should not be put in abeyance, considering that a Constitution Bench upheld its validity in the 1962 Kedar Nath judgment. “Once there is a congisable offence, either the government or the court, by an interim order, staying the effect may not be a correct approach.”
Mehta proposed the Centre could issue an advisory to states and UTs that no new sedition case should be lodged without approval in writing from a police officer of the rank of superintendent or above. “This can also be later subjected to judicial scrutiny,” said Mehta.
On the pending cases, Mehta said the gravity of each case was not known. “There may be a terror angle or money laundering. Ultimately, the pending cases are before the judicial forum, and we need to trust the courts. What your lordships can consider is...the bail applications may be decided expeditiously.”
Senior counsel Kapil Sibal, representing the petitioners who have challenged the validity of the sedition law, countered Mehta. “This is wholly unacceptable to us. The government made the same argument when the validity of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act was being... [challenged]. Then the court said that giving the power to an SP [superintendent of police] would mean nothing and that it would decide the validity of the law as it stands...The court said that if the law is unconstitutional, it is unconstitutional.” Sibal said Section 124A must be stayed in toto.
The bench then took a break of 15 minutes and came back with the interim order.
On Tuesday, the court set the deadline for the Centre. The court was unequivocal that it will accept the government’s request to pause the judicial scrutiny for a few months. But it added a rider that the pending criminal prosecutions under the sedition law as well as the cases that may be lodged in the future should be kept in abeyance across the country for the time being. The development came a day after the Centre filed an affidavit saying that it has decided to review Section 124A
On Monday, the government filed its affidavit to inform the court about its decision to “re-examine and reconsider” Section 124A. It underscored Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s impetus on the protection of civil liberties and the need to shed “colonial baggage”. The Centre urged the bench to pause the ongoing proceedings indefinitely to await the outcome of the review.
The affidavit on Monday followed another document the Centre submitted to the court less than 48 hours earlier, in which the government defended the penal provision of sedition. In its written submissions filed on Saturday, the Centre leaned on a six-decade-old Constitution bench judgment (Kedar Nath case, 1962) to assert that Section 124A is a valid law. The Centre said there are enough safeguards in place to balance the constitutional rights of the citizens and the needs of the state.
The court is hearing petitions, filed separately by former army officer SG Vombatkere, Editors’ Guild of India, Trinamool Congress lawmaker Mahua Moitra, NGO People’s Union for Civil Liberties, and some journalists, for striking down Section 124A on grounds of infringement of fundamental rights and rampant abuse.
Admitting the case in July 2021, the bench highlighted the “enormous power of misuse” of the sedition law in India. It asked the Centre why it should not scrap the colonial law that was once used against the freedom movement and leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
When the case was taken up last week, attorney general KK Venugopal, who was assisting the court, said the sedition law must be retained for the security of the nation and its citizens. He added some guidelines may be laid down to control the misuse of the statutory provision.