Libertatem Magazine

Sedition Law in India: A Colonial Relic

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The Indian Penal Code of 1860 (hereinafter “IPC, 1860”) is the central legislation identifying and punishing crimes in India. The Act is notably exhaustive however, since 1860, some parts of this Act have remained unamended and therefore, have become obsolete. In light of this, they have become means to attain ends that do not resemble justice. An example of the same would be the law criminalizing Sedition namely, Section 124A of the IPC, 1860 that criminalizes acts of Sedition. It states:

Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by 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 in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which a fine may be added; or, with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added; or, with fine.”  

This is an offense that was enacted by India’s colonial rulers in 1870 specifically to prevent anti-establishment activities such as the Indian struggle for independence. To their credit, the British colonial government made sedition in colonial India, as it was in England, a non-cognizable offense. To put it another way, when leaders like Tilak and Gandhi were accused of sedition, the police couldn’t arrest them or prosecute the case until a Magistrate issued a warrant. During the tenure of former Prime Minister late Indira Gandhi, this role in independent India shifted. For the first time in Indian history, Sedition has been declared a cognizable offense in the updated Code of Criminal Procedure of 1973, (hereinafter “CrPC, 1973”) which came into effect in 1974 and abolished the colonial-era 1898 Code of Criminal Procedure. In other words, police now have the authority to apprehend those guilty of sedition without a magistrate’s permission. This is a wound that independent India inflicted on itself.

 The most recent example of the misuse of this section can be seen in the country in the famous case where a 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi along with 10,000 tribal people, was charged with this offense when she was attempting to raise consciousness about the widespread protests against the government’s new agricultural regulations, and the 10,000 tribal people were protesting the state’s land acquisition. The law is very ambiguous. Anyone who tries to “incite hate or contempt” or “excites disaffection toward” the government will be imprisoned, presumably for life, under its provisions. Even though it contains caveats that government criticism that does not encourage violence is not to be punished under the statute, the current administration seems to have ignored that aspect of the law. 

As the aforementioned cases demonstrate, it takes nothing to enrage the government and the prosecution of law-enforcement agencies closely allied with the ruling party. The sedition law is one of the government’s bluntest and most powerful weapons. There have been 326 cases filed under the sedition law since 2014. However, only six of these have led to convictions, a gravely low rate that exposes the true purpose of the sedition law; to threaten the critics of the ruling government into silence. Even given the absurd and, usually malafide intent behind most sedition cases, India’s overloaded and therefore, sluggish judicial system means those accused of sedition face years of legal harassment. While the Government can rarely prove guilt under such cases, they become triumphant in the notion that dissent is curtailed during the most influential times. This legislation has continually been used to harass activists, the media, and ordinary citizens into keeping their opinions to themselves. 

The judiciary has expressed reservations about the widespread use of sedition charges. Aside from the low conviction rate, the Hon’ble Supreme Court decision in 1962 in the case of Kedar Nath Singh vs. the State of Bihar, clarified that a sedition charge should only be used to punish acts that incite violence. The Supreme Court recently emphasized that dissent is protected as free expression and that opposing the government is not often considered sedition. Such declarations have clearly not had the effect they intended to have. Sedition laws are regarded as remnants of a bygone era in most democratic nations and are either seldom used, as in the United States, or abolished entirely in countries like Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. The IPC, 1860 and the CrPC, 1973 are notably still crammed with outdated laws which are the dreaded relics of Victorian moralism and colonial autocracy.

In 2018, India decriminalized homosexuality and adultery vide the repeal of Section 497 and Section 377 of the IPC, 1860; some of the country’s most outdated provisions. However, anti-democratic relics like the sedition law remain on the books and are used to their full degree. The government’s mountain of sedition charges is legally sanctioned brutish bullying that has no place in a constitutional democracy. The sedition law must be abolished to begin seriously treating India’s legal and political culture’s colonial hangover. Mahatma Gandhi, who was perhaps the most prominent target of Section 124A of IPC 1860, was imprisoned for his work in the current affairs journal “Young India”. He proclaimed that the sedition law is the “prince among the political parts of the Indian Penal Code designed to curb citizen liberty” and, that “some of India’s most beloved patriots have been convicted under it.” The law was used to silence those fighting for their rights – the right to express one’s mind and control one’s destiny – back then, as it is now. 

In the end, it is true that if the beloved Father of our Nation was still alive, he would be put behind bars in the same manner that activists are today; and this fact is sufficient to note that there is some amendment required to the lens in which we look at sedition laws today. 


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