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Sedition Law: An Insight into the Draconian law from the Colonial Era

In the rich legal history of our country, there has been no other law that embodies the concept of imperialism as thoroughly as the law of Sedition. The extensive and vast power of Section 124A has been used since colonial times to silence the voices of disapproval against the British Government. Abundant cases starting from Jogendra Chandra Bose to Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak in the 20th century and landmark cases like Kedarnath Singh's in the 21st century, show us that even though the British left our country, their spirit of imperialism[1] still lives on through the law of Sedition.

In this paper, the fundamental nature of the law of Sedition has been explained, by starting with its legislative history, how and when it was drafted and enforced in the IPC, the landmark cases occurring throughout history, and how it has been misused. The author has pointed out why this draconian and imperial law needs to be removed from the IPC as it is not needed in contemporary India.

History Of Sedition Law

The British left a colonial law, which they used to silence Mahatma Gandhi and suppress the freedom movement. Even after 75 years of Independence, the harsh law of Sedition is still used in our country. A colonial legal legacy left by the British, Sedition, as a law, is controversial in nature and has always been used by politicians to their advantage in the modern world. Section 124A[2] asserts,

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 a fine may be added; or, with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added; or, with fine.

During colonial rule, Thomas Babington Macaulay[3] was appointed as the chair of the First Law Commission by the Parliament, and they proposed the codification of a penal code. After two years in 1837, Macaulay finished drafting the penal code of which Clause 113[4] read:
Whoever, by words, either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs, or by his visible representation, attempts to excite feelings of disaffection to the Government established by law in the territories of the East India Company, among any class of People who live under that Government, shall be punished with banishment for life or any other term, from the territories of the East India Company, to which fine may be added, or with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine".

This particular clause was later embodied in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code by the British Government in the year 1870 in order to tackle disapproval against the colonial rule; this particular law was not included in the original draft of the IPC enacted in 1860. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the sedition law was mainly used to suppress speeches and writings by essential freedom fighters and Indian nationalists.

The very first known case of Sedition was the trial of Jogendra Chandra Bose[5], a newspaper editor, in 1891. One of the most prominent incidents regarding sedition law was the trials of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi.

It has also been said that this colonial law was first derived from the Sedition Act of 1661, the purpose of which was the safety and preservation of his majesty's person and the British Government against treasonable and seditious practices.
Even though in today's modern world, the law of Sedition had been abolished in Great Britain in 2009, it continues its unnecessary existence in the Indian Penal Code.

Use Of Sedition Law In Independent India

The most controversial element of the law of Sedition is that its very existence threatens and contravenes with Fundamental Right of Speech and Expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India[6].

Section 124A of the IPC may have been necessary to control crime in the early years of Independence, but that is not the case in the 21st century; in this time and day, it is merely a tool used by political leaders to get their way. There are many instances to prove the line above, the most prominent one was the landmark case of Kedarnath Singh v. State of Bihar, which took place in the year 1962, the appellant here, i.e., Kedarnath Singh who was a member of the Forward Communist Party Bihar had used certain words like goondas for the Indian National Congress Party and dogs for the C.I.D. Officers, after which he also said that he believes revolution will come and that the political leaders of the country and the capitalists will burn in the flames of that revolution, and then a new government of the poor will come into existence rising from those flames.

The statement that he made and the words that he used ended up with a case being filed against him on the grounds of Section 124A of the IPC, Sedition and also Section 505, Public mischief, sentencing him to imprisonment for one year. When the case was appealed in the Patna High court, a single bench of the High Court dismissed it on the grounds that the terms used by the appellant, Kedarnath Singh, were nothing but insults against the Government. Though his speech on revolution was full of incitements and was certainly Seditious in nature, he did not say anything that criticized any government policies or measures.

After this, the appeal was further taken up to the Supreme Court's division bench, the reason being that the issue in question here was of the constitutional validity of Section 124A and Section 505 of the IPC. The Supreme Court referred to two different judgements, one of the privy council[7], King-Emperor V. Sadashiv Narayan Bhalerao and one of the federal court[8], Niharendu Dutt Majumdar V. The King.

The case from the Federal court, if used and accepted here, would have resulted in restrictions on the fundamental right that are guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, whereas if the case from the privy court were chosen, then the sections of the IPC here would have been declared as unconstitutional in the view of Article 19(1)(a) along with Article 19(2). Of course, the appeal was dismissed yet again.

Finally, since both judgments made that difficult, the final judgement was Section 124A intra-vires, which stated that the Supreme Court decided in that decision that it is essential for the stability of the State to recognise the activity against the state as a crime since the government established by the law, which is the very existence of the state, is a visible symbol of the state. Therefore any act of disloyalty towards a government established by law or hostility against that government would be included in the criminal statute, since it would imply a tendency to a public disorder through the use of actual violence or incitement to violation of law.

Any act which would destroy the government through contempt or hate, or create disaffection against that government. The court has made clear that the basic right of speech and expression is not being taken away, but only a reasonable limitation which is essential to the safety of the state. Reasonable restriction was also part of the judgement; the Supreme Court is regarded as the apex Court guaranteeing fundamental rights. They need to tell people what a basic right is and where the legislature can impose reasonable restrictions for the integrity and security of the state.

The precedent, in this case, has helped in many cases where appeals regarding seditious behaviour have been made.

Why Should The Law Of Sedition Be Removed From The Indian Penal Code?

The law of Sedition, as stated by the Supreme Court in the precedent of Kedarnath Singh V. State of Bihar, is valid, but certain restrictions are essential because otherwise, violation of fundamental rights would be in question.

However, even after this precedent by the apex court, the law has been used regardless of whether the alleged acts that are seditious in nature have resulted in any public disorder or incitement to violence against the Government. This law is still unfairly used by politicians in order to silence those who speak against them or criticize the Government; after the precedent of the supreme court, it takes two special conditions for Sedition, but Sedition is still easily used to distinguish the voice of those people who criticize the Government, thus infringing upon fundamental rights of the citizens guaranteed to them by the Constitution of India.

For this instance, there have been many cases, another judgement of Dr Binayak Sen v. the State of Chhattisgarh. He was accused of Sedition against Chhattisgarh Government, as he was alleged to have supported the Naxalites, thereby violating the provision of the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005.

Another one was in 2011, while deciding a case under the now inoperative Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (Tada)[9], court held that a member of terrorist organization could not be convicted for bare membership unless he had been involved in inciting people to lawless action. Also, in the famous Shreya Singhal case, the court distinguished between the terms "advocacy" and "incitement" stating only the latter could be punished as only that will be consistent with Article 19(2).

The very concept of Sedition law is related to unfair use of authority if someone even says or does something which criticizes the Indian Government's policies without any intention of inciting hate in others for the said Government; in such cases, the political leaders can use the sedition law extensively to their advantage, as they cannot even take fair criticism from the public. The conditions mentioned in Section 124A of the IPC for Sedition law to be charged very vast boundaries, logically, which is precisely why it is challenging to apply it in certain situations and is quickly taken advantage of to convict people who are not guilty.

Sedition law's nature is very common to the laws used since ancient times in kingdoms, where a person used to get punished if they said even a single word against royalty, though, of course, the punishments were much more severe than imprisonment or charging with fine. The main point here is that this law is draconian and ancient and is not fit to exist in the times we live in. India is one of the most democratic countries, and the essence of democracy is people's choice where we can choose our leaders, so of course, there is bound to be some criticism, especially from people whose elected leaders do not win the elections, but it does not necessarily mean that those people are trying to incite hatred for the selected Government in others. If the sedition law is kept in use even in the future, the results might be severely destructive.

The recently appointed Chief Justice of our country's Supreme Court, CJI N.V.RAMANA asked why the colonial law applied against Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak continues to survive in the book after 75 years of independence, in an unprecedented judicial critique of the government's use of sedition law to crush freedoms. The CJI also said, "Sedition is a colonial law.

It suppresses freedoms. It was used against Mahatma Gandhi, Tilak. Is this law necessary after 75 years of Independence?". Another statement made by him was, "The use of sedition is like giving a saw to the carpenter to cut a piece of wood, and he uses it to cut the entire forest itself". In the midst of the growing public denunciation of the central and State law enforcement bodies using the seditionary law to silence disagreements, free mouth and for deny bail to imprisoned activists, journalists, students and civil society, a large number of other statements he made in the courts have taken a note. Several petitions have been filed highlighting the "chilling effect" sedition has on the fundamental right of free speech.

Our country keeps pushing for modern views even when our leaders are afraid to make changes like these as they think it will put them at a disadvantage. A tool to control the masses, and stop them from saying what they can, without being afraid of conviction, is what Sedition is, nothing more. Removing it from the IPC will not be easy despite the numerous precedents regarding the sedition law, and it will take time.

The law of Sedition no longer has any place or need in the modern world, and thus it should be eliminated from the Indian Penal Code.

  • Queen-Empress vs Jogendra Chunder Bose And Ors. on 25 August, 1891
  • Kedarnath Singh v. State of Bihar on 20 January, 1962
  • Dr Binayak Sen v. the State of Chhattisgarh
  • Shreya Singhal v. Union of India on 25 March, 2015
  1. Imperialism- A political system in which one a country that is rich and powerful controls other countries(colonies) which are not as powerful as them in terms of wealth and other aspects.
  2. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code mentions the Sedition Law.
  3. Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay of Rothley, Leicestershire, England, was a British politician and historian.
  4. Clause 113 of Macaulay's penal code mentioned the law now known as the Sedition law, which is now mentioned in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code.
  5. Jogendra Chandra Bose was the editor of a newspaper called Bangobasi in the 19th century, he was also the first one to in India to face an accusation under the law of sedition in the year 1891.
  6. Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India states that, all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression.
  7. The Privy Council was merely a judicial body that heard appeals from various British colonies, including India.
  8. The Federal Court of India was a judicial body with original and advisory jurisdiction that was established in India in 1937 under the provisions of the Government of India Act 1935.
  9. TADA was an Indian anti-terrorism law that was in effect between 1985 and 1995 (modified in 1987) against the backdrop of the Punjab insurgency and applied to the entire country.
Written By: Aryan Sarckar

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