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Section 150 of the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita Bill, 2023: A Regressive Step by the Union

On August 12, 2023, the Union Minister of India, Mr. Amit Shah introduced a new bill in Parliament to replace the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) and the Indian Evidence Act. The IPC, which was framed by the British in the year 1860, has been the core of the criminal justice system of the country for more than 160 years.

It is now set to be replaced by the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, 2023.

The CrPC of 1973 will be replaced by the Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita, 2023.

The Indian Evidence Act of 1872 will be replaced by the Bharatiya Sakshya Bill, 2023.

The Bill proposes 313 amendments that will bring considerably big changes to the criminal justice system. One of the major conundrums lies in Section 150 of the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita Bill, 2023, which will completely repeal the offence of Sedition under 124A of the IPC. Section 150 of the bill deals with the offence of sedition. However, it does not use the word sedition but describes the offence as "endangering sovereignty, unity and integrity of India."

Sedition Law: Origin

The sedition law was used by the British to suppress dissent and imprison freedom fighters such as Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak who criticised the policies of the colonial administration. Following Independence, the drafters of the constitution spent a lot of time commenting on several facets of this colonial law. K.M. Munshi was one of the most vocal opponents of the sedition law, claiming that such a harsh law poses a danger to India's democracy.

He argued that, "as a matter of fact the essence of democracy is criticism of Government." It was due to his efforts and the persistence of the Sikh leader Bhupinder Singh Mann that the word sedition was omitted from the Constitution.

However, this law was reimposed by the very controversial First Amendment that was passed by the government headed by the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He not only reimposed the sedition law through the first amendment in 1951 but also strengthened it by adding two expressions- "friendly relations with foreign state" and "public order" as grounds for imposing "reasonable restrictions" on free speech.

Issue with the Sedition Law

The 1962 Kedar Nath Judgement stated that the sedition statute should only be used in exceptional circumstances where the nation's security and sovereignty are at risk. However, there are growing instances to show that this law has been weaponised as a handy tool against political rivals, to suppress dissent and free speech. Between 2016 and 2019, for example, the number of cases filed under Section 124A rose by 160% even as the rate of conviction dropped to 3%.

In one telling instance, a sedition case was so insubstantial that the Allahabad high court told the state and the police that, "the unity of India is not made of bamboo reeds which will bend to the passing winds of empty slogans. The foundations of our nation are more enduring." In fact, instead of protecting these foundations 124A arguably weakens them. It discourages dissent, the safety valve of democracy.

The main issue with the Sedition Law is it's poor definition. The terms "bring into hatred or contempt" or "attempt to excite disaffection" might be interpreted in a variety of ways, giving the police and the government the right to harass those who are innocent. Sedition law has a vague definition that makes it easy for the police to unjustly accuse people because it doesn't specify which actions are seditious and only gives a general description of what can be considered seditious.

Issue with Section 150 of the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita Bill, 2023

Freedom of speech and expression is the hallmark of a democracy that is being compromised due to the sedition law. Section 150 by describing the offence as "endangering sovereignty, unity and integrity of India", not only continues with the major issue of the law but also, increases the vagueness and broadness in the definition of what act should specifically be categorized as seditious and what shouldn't.

Notably, the 22nd Law Commission of India in April 2023 had recommended that Section 124A should be retained in the statute book with certain changes. In its report, the Law Commission said that "Section 124A needs to be retained in the Indian Penal Code, though certain amendments, as suggested, may be introduced in it by incorporating the ratio decidendi of Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar so as to bring about greater clarity regarding the usage of the provision."

Section 150 is way wider than what was recommended in the Law Report which was to strengthen the provision by adding procedural safeguards and enhancing jail term. The Commission had also recommended adding the words "with a tendency to incite violence or cause public disorder."

Section 150 of the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita Bill, 2023 provides with nothing new but only helps in increasing the vagueness of the Sedition Law and extends the punishment of the unjust law. Currently, sedition draws a punishment of life imprisonment or with a jail term which may extend to three years. The new provision changes the three-year imprisonment to 7 years.

Way Forward & Suggestions
It is imperative for the government to understand the importance and graveness of Sedition Law. Sedition laws and the increasing abuse of them by governments are a serious topic of concern. Personal liberty and the right to free speech are hallmarks of liberal democracy and sedition laws and their gross misuse attack the very foundation of these liberties enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The need of the hour requires the government to not to introduce a new bill to replace the core legal statutes but to specifically define the term "Sedition" in order to prevent the draconian use of this law by the governments of all colours.

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