Plea Challenging Sedition law

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    The Supreme Court issued notice to the Centre on a plea challenging the Constitutional validity of Section 124-A of the IPC that penalises sedition.

    Major Points  of plea 

    • The plea was filed by two journalists who are facing sedition charges for comments made by them on social media against their respective state governments and central government.
    • Contention made: They contended that section 124-A infringes upon the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression, guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
      • The sections of sedition have been repealed in comparative postcolonial democratic jurisdictions around the world. While India calls itself a ‘democracy, throughout the democratic world the offence of sedition has been condemned as undemocratic, undesirable and unnecessary.

    What is Sedition Law?

    • India’s sedition law was introduced by the British in 1870 but the Constituent Assembly decided to drop it from the Constitution in 1948.
    • The word “sedition” disappeared from the Constitution when it was adopted on November 26, 1949, and Article 19(1)(a) gave absolute freedom of speech and expression. 
    • Section 124A, however, stayed in the Indian Penal Code.
      • Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which deals with sedition, was drafted by Thomas Babington Macaulay and included in the IPC in 1870.
    • Section 124A states
      • “Whoever, 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.”

    Arguments in Support of Section 124A

    • Section 124A of the IPC has its utility in combating anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements.
    • It protects the elected government from attempts to overthrow the government with violence and illegal means.
    • The continued existence of the government established by law is an essential condition of the stability of the State.
    • Many districts in different states face a Maoist insurgency and rebel groups virtually run a parallel administration.
      • These groups openly advocate the overthrow of the state government by revolution.
      • Therefore, there is a need to retain the provision to effectively combat anti-national, secessionist and terrorist elements.

    Arguments Against Section 124A

    • Mahatma Gandhi called Section 124A “the prince among the political sections of the IPC designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”.
    • Jawaharlal Nehru said that the provision was “obnoxious” and “highly objectionable”, and “the sooner we get rid of it the better”.
    • It is a constraint on the legitimate exercise of constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and expression.
      • Dissent and criticism of the government are an essential ingredient of robust public debate in a vibrant democracy.
    • The British, who introduced sedition to oppress Indians, have themselves abolished the law in their country.
      • There is no reason why India should not abolish this section.
    • The sedition law is being misused as a tool to persecute political dissent. A wide and concentrated executive discretion is inbuilt into it which permits the blatant abuse.
    • Many petitions  contended that the provision which was used by the British against Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak is still being “grossly abused” to stifle freedom of speech and expression of those who choose to express dissent against policies of the Governments in power.

    Supreme Court Stand

    • The constitutionality of sedition was challenged in the Supreme Court in Kedar Nath Vs State of Bihar (1962).
    • The Court upheld the law on the basis that this power was required by the state to protect itself.
    • However, it had added a vital caveat that “a person could be prosecuted for sedition only if his acts caused incitement to violence or intention or tendency to create public disorder or cause disturbance of public peace”.
    • The Supreme Court laid down that every citizen has a right to say or write about the government, by way of criticism or comment, as long as it does not “incite people to violence” against the government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder.
    • In September 2016, the Supreme Court had reiterated these necessary safeguards and held that they should be followed by all authorities.

    Way Forward

    • India is the largest democracy in the world and the right to free speech and expression is an essential ingredient of democracy.
    • The expression or thought that is not in consonance with the policy of the government of the day should not be considered sedition.
    • The Law Commission has rightly said, “an expression of frustration over the state of affairs cannot be treated as sedition”. 
      • If the country is not open to positive criticism, there would be no difference between the pre-and post-Independence eras.
    • It is also essential to protect national integrity. However, the section should not be misused as a tool to curb free speech.

    Source :IE