“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”
— Harry S. Truman
Sedition is now a hot topic in Indian Politics, especially since the 2016 case filed against JNU students and very recently against a Lakshadweep filmmaker Aisha Sultana. But what exactly is “sedition” in the context of Indian Politics?
Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code is referred to as the sedition law. The word “sedition” itself is, however, not mentioned in the IPC section.
The text for the Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code says:
“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 fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”
There are three usual explanations for this act:
Explanation 1.—The expression “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.
Explanation 2.—Comments expressing disapprobation of the measures of the Government with a view to obtain their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.
Explanation 3.—Comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection do not constitute an offence under this section. Source
By virtue of such a vague definition, the Government enjoys almost unlimited freedom in deciding what constitutes sedition. Any opposing voices may be silenced under this law, and anyone can thus be deemed “anti-national” and “an enemy of the state” should they offend the Government in any way.
And it is evident that our Supreme Leader is easily offended. Here is a brief timeline of some famous sedition cases in the country (Note – Our Supreme Leader came to power in 2014):
The sedition law had been used sparingly up until very recently:
2012 – Political Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi – based on drawings about the rampant corruption in the then UPA government. The charges were later dropped.
March 2014 – 60 Kashmiri students booked for sedition in Uttar Pradesh.
2016 – Sedition case filed under doctored evidence against JNU students Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, and seven others.
February 23, 2021 – bail granted to environment activist Disha Ravi, with the court saying the Government could not put citizens “behind bars simply because they chose to disagree with the state policies”.
March 3, 2021 – The Supreme Court of India said, “Expression of views which is dissent and different from the opinion of the government cannot be termed seditious.”
May 31, 2021 – The Supreme Court stopped the Andhra Pradesh Police from taking coercive action against two TV news channels on charges of sedition.
June 3, 2021 – The Supreme Court quashed the sedition case against Vinod Dua, citing the 1962 Kedar Nath Singh judgement, stating the “citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the government” and “every journalist is entitled to protection of the Kedar Nath judgment”.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 47 cases of sedition were filed in 2014. Chargesheets were filed against 16 accused while one person was convicted.
2015 – 30 cases filed, 73 accused arrested but none convicted.
2016 – 35 cases filed, 48 accused, one convicted.
2017 – 51 cases filed, 228 arrested, four convicted.
2018 – 70 cases filed, 56 arrested, two convicted.
2019 – 93 cases filed, 96 arrested, two convicted.
The Sedition Act is an archaic piece of document in India. This actually becomes an excellent choice of words when taken into consideration with the fact that the wording for this law has almost been kept intact since 1870! While many world texts inspire India’s constitution, the influence of the British Raj is so evident in this act that it almost appears that its use makes the Government another colonial power in the country.
The historical text from 1870 is as follows:
“Section 124A. Exciting disaffection.”
“Whoever by words, either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, excites, or attempts to excite, feelings of disaffection to the Government established by law in British India, shall be punished with transportation for life or for any term, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”
Only the Government in question (underlined) is the portion that has been changed – neither the term of punishment nor the specificity.
The act has previously been used by the British against Jogendra Chunder Bose (1891, for criticising the Age of Consent Act, 1891 – released on bail, charges later dropped), against Lokmanya Tilak (1897 and 1908, for his articles in Kesari – convicted, 18 months and six years imprisonment respectively) and Mahatma Gandhi (1922, for his articles in Young India – imprisoned). Gandhi famously referred to Section 124A as the “prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”. Source
Most democracies do not have such vaguely defined sedition laws for citizens (excluding the Military Code of Conduct). Even the UK, which practically defined the sedition law in India, abolished sedition and seditious libel as common-law offences by Section 73 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. It took effect on January 12, 2010.
It is important to see that according to this law, sedition is a crime against the Government, not the country or nation. Supreme Court lawyer Atul Kumar said, “The use of words or actions that are intended to encourage people to be or act against a government is sedition in the law”.
This makes us think, why would a government that enjoys majority support need protection from its own citizens?
Speaking against the Government is not the same as speaking against the nation.
Raising your voice against the Government is not a crime.
Suppressing the right to freedom of speech is.
“Crime is contagious. If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.”
— Louis Brandeis