Sedition laws: Penal provisions or political weapons?

Kumail Fatima

Sedition is a term that legally is defined as a revolting act against an authority established by law, which means Government. In an ordinary language, the word “RAJDROH” or “DESHDROH” can be used to explain sedition in a single phrase.

Nowadays, a seditious act can include anything such as speech, an article, drawing cartoons, cheering a rival team, criticizing the government, hugging the army chief of another country as the way happened with Navjot Singh Sidhu or sharing your thoughts on the social media platform, etc.

Section 124A of IPC defines sedition and lays down the punishment. Itis a part of Chapter VI of the Code which deals with the offenses against the state.

Section 124A of the IPC reads as follow: “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”.

The history of this law is quite interesting. This law was enacted in the Colonial Era and like all other colonial laws, its aim was to suppress the voices of Independence. It was first drafted by Lord Macaulay in the year 1837, but for a certain reason, it was omitted from the actual code which was IPC1860 which was the aftermath of Revolt of 1857. In the year 1870, Sedition was introduced in chapter IV of IPC, due to the rise of the Wahabi Movement which aimed at overthrowing British rule.

Since then, this law has had an oppressive history. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawahar Lal Nehru, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar were among those leaders who were charged with Sedition by the Britishers. Gandhi Ji has said, “the law was designed to suppress the liberty of the citizens”.

Surprisingly, a law that denied fundamental rights is still alive in a democracy but abolished in a country where it evolved. Britain abolished this law as a criminal offense in 2009 but even after 70 years of decolonization, this law continues to exist in India.

Since then, successive governments in India have used this draconian law to oppress the voice of citizens.

Is this really a law or just a weapon? As far as my thinking goes, it is a political weapon because most of the time it is used to instill fear in the hearts of those who dare to criticize the actions of authorities. Half of the cases of sedition are against the protestors who dared to raise their voices against the Government.  Despite the fact that we are living in a democratic country, and as once said by the former U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) democracy is: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people. So, we all have the right to question the Government which is for the people and by people but most of the time, citizens who question them are charged for Sedition.

For the first time in 1951, Nehru Jidemanded the removal of this law and also shared some alternatives for this and he believed that the sooner we get rid of this, the better. But politics is a big thing and that’s why in the ruling period of UPA, this remained intact and even during their rule they slammed several people for sedition and the irony is that the removal of the Section 124A was a special proposal in the election manifesto of 2019. In the year 2016, KanhaiyaKumar’s sedition case made the headlines and the opposition parties criticized the law. In 2015, Shashi Tharoor had proposed in the Parliament that this law should be abolished completely or must bring some changes in the provision. Thereafter the Law Commission in the year 2019 suggested the abolition of the law or to bring certain changes. The irony of this draconian law is that every opposition loves to criticize this provision but when they come to power, they use this law to its fullest to suppress the voice of dissent. In several instances, the constitutionality of this provision was challenged. In the landmark judgment of Kedarnath v. state of Bihar, the Apex Court upheld the constitutionality of Section 124A of IPC and also held that this section should limit certain acts. But as a critical thinker, I disagree with the view of the Apex Court because sub-clause 2 of Art 19 of the Indian Constitution which comprises of public security, morality, national security, and friendly relation with neighboring countries is sufficient to limit the act of freedom of speech. Also, most of the grounds of sedition are covered by the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 1967, so having similar laws in useless.

It is evident that this law has the potential of being used unabashedly and is therefore a threat to the freedom of speech and expression. There are several instances where this law is slammed over people unabashedly while they were using their right to freedom of speech and expression. We all know the fact that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely so why is there a need for such a law which can be used incorrectly. If we look at the history of this law to date, it will be found that it has been used and is being used mostly to fulfill the political motives of the ruling party. To date, there are thousands of people on whom this law is imposed and there is never a charge sheet filed. And many people had to face trials and finally found out that they had no fault except that they were exercising their constitutional rights. Why it is so hard for authorities to understand that when they charge someone with Section 124A, they are tagging them as traitors although the Courts believe in the maxim “person presume innocent until proven guilty” but the reality of today’s world is far different. This world is a world of electronic media where accuse faces media trials and at times these things end up their carrier and then court found them innocent. Few cases which made headlines are as follows:-the case of Arundhati Roy (2009), Asim Trivedi (2012), and Kanhaiyya Kumar (2016).Recently we can see the case of student activists Safoora Zargar, Amulya Leona, and Sharjeel Imam.

Before writing this paper, I came across a student (anonymous) who narrated his story to me. I spoke to him, he told me that he is forced to hide because he was part of anti-CAA protest and now like others, he could be the next victim of UAPA or Sedition.

If we think here, we will realize that governments change, but the attitude of all of them is the same for those who question them. Our right to ask questions from authorities is taken away. It is our responsibility to understand the hollowness of this law.

If the citizens of this country do not agree with their created government then they cannot question it? Are they obliged to agree with every policy made by the government? Being a citizen of this country they have all the rights to criticize the government and it is the responsibility of the government to consider their concerns and should not tag them as Anti-nationals. Is this justifiable to have such draconian laws? Don’t you think this law needs the Bin? Because as far as my thinking goes, there is no need for this law in a democratic Country.

Sedition is nothing but a political tool that is always used by the governments to create deter in the minds of a critical thinker. A large number of cases of sedition exemplifies the frivolous use of this provision. This law has more cons than pros and has the potential to be misused and therefore, it is necessary that this law should be abolished in India the way it has happened in Britain.

Kumail Fatima is a third-year law student at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.