Sedition laws in India: A relic of the colonial past?

I. Introduction

Sedition laws in India have their origins in the colonial era and were used by the British to suppress dissent and nationalism.[1] Enacted in the 1870s, sedition laws like Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code have continued to remain on the statute books even after independence. However, their application and constitutional validity have been restricted by the Supreme Court through judicial interpretation. In recent years, civil society groups have highlighted the misuse of sedition laws by successive governments to stifle criticism and dissent. This has led to a fresh debate on whether sedition laws are outdated colonial relics that have no place in a modern democracy. [2]

This blog argues that sedition laws are unconstitutional remnants of colonial rule that violate free speech, chill dissent and enable the harassment of citizens. Their use betrays the promise of democracy and freedom that independent India made to her citizens. It is time to remove this colonial vestige and align India with progressive global standards on freedom of expression. [3]

II. History of Sedition Law in India

The origins of sedition law in India can be traced back to the colonial era and Thomas Macaulay, who introduced it in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 1870. [4] Sedition was enacted as Section 124A of the IPC in 1898, which criminalized any attempts to excite “disaffection” against the British government. [5] The British used sedition laws as a potent tool to suppress and punish any writings or speeches that promoted nationalist or revolutionary sentiments against colonial rule. [6]

One of the early prominent cases was Queen Empress v. Jogendra Chunder Bose in 1891, where the editor of a newspaper was prosecuted for sedition over an article criticizing the Age of Consent Bill. [7] The British amended Section 124A in 1898 to widen its scope to include “disloyalty” and “feelings of enmity” as grounds for prosecution. [8] Sedition laws were frequently used against the likes of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi to curb their growing influence and the freedom struggle. [9]

III. Constitutional Validity and Judicial Interpretation of Sedition Law

Despite its colonial origins, the sedition law under Section 124A was retained in the IPC after independence. In the early years, the Supreme Court upheld its validity in Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar (1962). [10] However, the Court restricted its scope to acts involving incitement to violence or public disorder. [11] This set the tone for future interpretations diluting the scope of sedition.

In the 1960s, landmark decisions in Rangarajan vs P. Jagjivan Ram (1989) and Shreya Singhal vs Union of India (2015) laid down that mere criticism of the government does not amount to sedition. [12] The Courts have upheld the right to dissent, advocate revolutionary ideas and seek governmental change through lawful means. [13] The limited legitimate scope of sedition was most recently affirmed in the Supreme Court’s 2016 judgment in Common Cause vs Union of India. [14]

IV. Misuse of Sedition Law in Independent India

Despite the Courts seeking to restrict its scope, the sedition law has been frequently misused by governments to stifle dissent and harass citizens. [15] Sedition charges are disproportionately used against activists, journalists, students, intellectuals and other dissenting voices. [16] From 2016-18, a total of 179 sedition cases were registered even when incitement of violence was absent. [17]

The recent surge in sedition cases against critics of the CAA-NRC, arrest of activists and students, and charges against journalists have drawn widespread condemnation. [18] Civil society argues that such rampant misuse betrays the government’s intolerance to political opposition and violates constitutional free speech guarantees. [19]

V. International Abolition of Sedition Laws

The United Kingdom, as the former colonial power that introduced sedition laws in India, repealed its own sedition laws in 2009. [20] This was part of a global trend of countries like Indonesia, Kenya, South Korea and Taiwan repealing colonial-era sedition laws over the last few decades. [21] By retaining sedition law, India lags behind international standards on freedom of expression as enshrined in the ICCPR and UDHR which she has ratified. [22]

VI. The Case for Abolishing Sedition Law in India

The case for abolishing sedition law in India stems from its origins as a colonial tool of oppression which has no place in a modern democracy. [23] Furthermore, the limited legitimate scope upheld by the judiciary renders the law redundant. [24] Most importantly, it violates the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a). [25]

The law’s propensity for misuse endangers dissent, which is essential for a robust democracy. [26] It exerts a chilling effect on free speech and democratic debate on governmental policies and actions. [27] Moreover, alternate laws like criminal defamation sufficiently address any national security concerns. [28] After seven decades of independence from colonial rule, it is time for India to remove this outdated and unconstitutional vestige. [29]

VII. Conclusion

In conclusion, the sedition law is antithetical to the spirit of democracy, especially the world’s largest democracy. It stifles legitimate dissent, criticism and debate essential for accountable governance. India needs to remove this colonial vestige to truly uphold freedom of expression as a constitutional right. Its repeal or abolishment would align India with progressive global standards befitting a modern democracy. It would also affirm India’s commitment to safeguarding the democratic freedoms so hard fought for during the independence struggle.

References

[1] Bhatia, K., 2020. Sedition in India: Only a colonial legacy?. Journal of National Law University Delhi, 1(1), pp.127-156.

[2] Aiyar, Y., 2020. Scrap outdated sedition law, end misuse. The Times of India. [online] Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-edit-page/scrap-outdated-sedition-law-end-misuse/ [Accessed 17 February 2023].

[3] The Wire, 2016. Free Speech, Nationalism and Sedition. [online] Available at: https://thewire.in/books/free-speech-nationalism-and-sedition [Accessed 17 February 2023].

[4] Bhatia, K., 2020. Sedition in India: Only a colonial legacy?. Journal of National Law University Delhi, 1(1), pp.127-156.

[5] S. 124A, Indian Penal Code, 1860.

[6] Aiyar, Y., 2020. Scrap outdated sedition law, end misuse. The Times of India. [online] Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-edit-page/scrap-outdated-sedition-law-end-misuse/ [Accessed 17 February 2023].

[7] 1891 ILR 18 Cal 49.

[8] Bhatia, K., 2020. Sedition in India: Only a colonial legacy?. Journal of National Law University Delhi, 1(1), pp.127-156.

[9] The Wire, 2016. Free Speech, Nationalism and Sedition. [online] Available at: https://thewire.in/books/free-speech-nationalism-and-sedition [Accessed 17 February 2023].

[10] AIR 1962 SC 955.

[11] Id.

[12] 1989 SCR (2) 204; (2015) 5 SCC 1.

[13] The Wire, 2016. Free Speech, Nationalism and Sedition. [online] Available at: https://thewire.in/books/free-speech-nationalism-and-sedition [Accessed 17 February 2023].

[14] (2016) 15 SCC 269.

[15] Bhatia, K., 2020. Sedition in India: Only a colonial legacy?. Journal of National Law University Delhi, 1(1), pp.127-156.

[16] Aiyar, Y., 2020. Scrap outdated sedition law, end misuse. The Times of India. [online] Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-edit-page/scrap-outdated-sedition-law-end-misuse/ [Accessed 17 February 2023].

[17] The Wire, 2019. Sedition Cases Jumped 160% in 5 Years, 85% Cases Pending Trial. [online] Available at: https://thewire.in/government/sedition-cases-jumped-160-in-5-years-85-cases-pending-trial [Accessed 17 February 2023].

[18] Scroll.in, 2020. Sedition case against school for CAA play mirrors misuse of law by states to curb dissent. [online] Available at: https://scroll.in/article/953237/sedition-case-against-school-for-caa-play-is-exactly-the-kind-of-abuse-states-are-making-of-this-law [Accessed 17 February 2023].

[19] The Wire, 2020. Sedition Charge Slapped on TISS Students For ‘Radical’ Slogans Is Absurd, Say Students, Faculty. [online] Available at: https://thewire.in/rights/tiss-sedition-fir-sharjeel-imam-slogans [Accessed 17 February 2023].

[20] Bhatia, K., 2020. Sedition in India: Only a colonial legacy?. Journal of National Law University Delhi, 1(1), pp.127-156.

[21] The Wire, 2016. Free Speech, Nationalism and Sedition. [online] Available at: https://thewire.in/books/free-speech-nationalism-and-sedition [Accessed 17 February 2023].

[22] Scroll.in, 2020. Sedition case against school for CAA play mirrors misuse of law by states to curb dissent. [online] Available at: https://scroll.in/article/953237/sedition-case-against-school-for-caa-play-is-exactly-the-kind-of-abuse-states-are-making-of-this-law [Accessed 17 February 2023].

[23] The Wire, 2019. Sedition Cases Jumped 160% in 5 Years, 85% Cases Pending Trial. [online] Available at: https://thewire.in/government/sedition-cases-jumped-160-in-5-years-85-cases-pending-trial [Accessed 17 February 2023].

[24] Bhatia, K., 2020. Sedition in India: Only a colonial legacy?. Journal of National Law University Delhi, 1(1), pp.127-156.

[25] Aiyar, Y., 2020. Scrap outdated sedition law, end misuse. The Times of India. [online] Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-edit-page/scrap-outdated-sedition-law-end-misuse/ [Accessed 17 February 2023].

[26] The Wire, 2016. Free Speech, Nationalism and Sedition. [online] Available at: https://thewire.in/books/free-speech-nationalism-and-sedition [Accessed 17 February 2023].

[27] Bhatia, K., 2020. Sedition in India: Only a colonial legacy?. Journal of National Law University Delhi, 1(1), pp.127-156.

[28] Aiyar, Y., 2020. Scrap outdated sedition law, end misuse. The Times of India. [online] Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-edit-page/scrap-outdated-sedition-law-end-misuse/ [Accessed 17 February 2023].

[29] The Wire, 2016. Free Speech, Nationalism and Sedition. [online] Available at: https://thewire.in/books/free-speech-nationalism-and-sedition [Accessed 17 February 2023].

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