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Sedition: A Tool To Suppress Dissent

Recently, Uttarakhand High Court held that:
Dissent suppressed under sedition law would make democracy week[1], the court also added that:
criticizing the government can never be sedition. Unless the public functionaries are criticized, democracy cannot be strengthened.[2]

The case has created a new controversy in the Indian Constitutional Jurisprudence. Before that, the protest against CAA and its consequences in the country has reignited the debate around India's sedition law. In the era of 21st century, the country has seen drastic changes from the period of colonialism. Indian legislatures are making immense progress.

Almost all Indian laws found its traces back to the British period but many of the British made laws were only implemented just for the oppression of the Indians but unfortunately, they have been retained till now and one of those laws is sedition law. The main objective of the sedition law is to suppress free speech and free expression and free thought, all of which are not so compatible with the government. It is a significant tool in the hands of the government to suppress a particular dissenter.

The provision was made before we got independence because the colonial rulers wished to penalize anybody who was trying to overthrow the state. But the irony is that, this provision is still being used to bully and suppress the voice of citizen in the largest so-called democracy of the world and now a new term 'anti-national'is used for them. It is to be understood that dissent over some issue is not sedition, opposing government or any other authority is not sedition.

The first thing that we should keep in our mind is that the law of sedition was implemented when we were ruled by a Monarchy. Section 124A contains the offence of sedition under Indian Penal Code; it was a law similar to treason in England. However, when the I.P.C. came into existence in 1860, the sedition law was not the part of Code even though it was the part of the original draft in the year in 1837. There have been many reasons for such omissions.

However, some British termed it as an honest mistake. It was only in 1870 that the law was inserted into the code and the major reason behind that was the mutinies which were taking place. Britain introduced sedition law to curb all types of nationalist movements in their colonies. However, sedition Law was itself abolished in Britain.

The law was used to curb the dissent and liberal views in the face of nationalism. The said offence is cognizable, non-bailable and non-compoundable. The journey started from the case where Bal Gangadhar Tilak was sentenced to imprisonment[3] and is still going on and no one knows when it is going to be eliminated. In the post-independence period, its constitutionality was challenged several times.

We cannot say that nobody has taken an initiative to end this law but an attempt was done. In Tara Singh v. State of Punjab[4], where the court struck down the Section 124A of I.P.C. as unconstitutional. To avert this measure, a constitutional amendment was made thereby coming back to its previous position. The essence of the crime of sedition, lies in the intention with which the language is used and intentional attempt.

The quintessence of sedition is intention. When anyone told the audience about how the government wanted to ruin those people is not sedition, but is merely a critique of the government adoptive, measures. We all know that it is not sedition to criticize the administration or the officers of the government, but where an individual exceeds the limits of fair criticism, it amounts to sedition. Now coming to the freedom of speech and expression, it is the basic fundamental right that forms bedrock of any state that claims to be democratic. But it is not an absolute right.

Giving voice to the importance of freedom of speech, many scholars advocated for the free flow of the ideas and expression in a society. Many argued that for the stability of a society one must not suppress the voice of the citizens, how so ever contrary it might be. Freedom of speech makes a democracy vibrant. The laws and some other subjects clarify the distinction between the states and the government.

The Government will change but the state will exist. Therefore, to oppose a Government through protests, strikes, campaigns to make people rebel by legitimate means is a right of a people in a democracy and it cannot be framed as sedition. In a case, Allahabad High Court held that Section 124A imposed restriction on freedom of speech and expression is not in the interest of general public and declares Section 124A as ultra vires the constitution[5].

But overruling this decision, Supreme Court held the Section 124A[6] was intra vires[7]. It is to be understood that the offenders who are charged with this offence are often termed as 'traitors' even before their guilt is proved and then they are forced to live a disturbed life. They are often seen as the enemy of the country. The law commission also recommended in its consultation paper on sedition that it should be scrapped as only a few were charged with it in the entire country. Thus, we can say that sedition law has become vague, obsolete and an urgent introspection of I.P.C. is needed.

It can be concluded from the present instances in the country that the sedition law has been used in numerous ways to restrict the freedom of speech and expression. These restrictions cross all cultural, religious, political and national boundaries. It should be clearly understood that the government is a part of the state or nation, not the state itself.

Therefore, disaffection towards the government does not mean disaffection towards the state and if this provision still remains, then the government someday may choke down the voice of dissenters by charging sedition against them. Every individual in a democracy has the right to freedom of speech and expression and has the right to criticize the government policies and laws and hence they should not be treated as 'anti-national' or 'traitors'. Criticism is the basic foundation of democracy and hence should not be curbed so that there is a smooth functioning of democracy.

India today as a democratic state needs to overthrow this narrow approach of not tolerating healthy criticism also and it is now the order of the day that legislature and judiciary should come up with newer reforms that either scrap off the law or amend it in such a way that it is no more arbitrary.
  1. Umesh Kumar Sharma v. state of Uttarakhand and another, (2020) W.P. Crl. 1182.
  2. Umesh Kumar Sharma v. state of Uttarakhand and another, (2020) W.P. Crl. 1182.
  3. Queen-Empress v. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, ILR (1898) 22 Bom 112.
  4. Tara Singh v. State of Punjab, AIR 1962 SCC 955 (India).
  5. Ram Nandan v. State of U.P., AIR 1959 Alld. 101 (India).
  6. Indian Penal Code, 1860 Act No.45 of 1860 1* [6th October, 1860.].
  7. Kedarnath Das v. State of Bihar, AIR 1962 SC 955 (India).

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