Are Indian Sedition Laws Outdated?

Sedition Laws In India

Sedition Laws In India

Sedition Laws – In Sharp Focus

Sedition. Till over a month ago, the great majority of young Indians (those born in the 1980s and later) may not have known what that means. And even if they did, they wouldn’t have had an opportunity to have heard the word used in an Indian context – much less, in a civilian context. That is, till the JNU controversy happened.

On February 10, a leftist students’ group from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi decided to organize a protest march and a cultural programme against the ‘Judicial Killing of Afzal Guru’ (Guru was convicted of the attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001). The students also allegedly participated in anti-national sloganeering. A purported video from the event was broadcast by news channels. The video shows students shouting anti-India slogans, some of which seem to encourage separatist tendencies in Kashmir.

The issue caused quite a stir and taking a tough stand, the NDA government warned of strict action against any anti-national activity. A case was lodged against several JNU students at Vasant Kunj (North) police station in Delhi. The case was lodged under IPC Sections 124A (sedition), 120B (criminal conspiracy), and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention). Delhi police also arrested the president of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s students union (JNUSU) Kanhaiya Kumar on sedition charges.

This brought India’s sedition laws and their relevance into sharp focus.

What is Sedition?

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, Sedition is “the crime of saying, writing, or doing something that encourages people to disobey their government”. Generally, sedition refers to incitement or provoking people to defy legal authority and rise up in rebellion.

Many countries of the world including many established democracies have sedition laws. While at first look, a law against sedition may seem to go against the very principle of democracy and democratic freedoms such as the freedom of political dissent and freedom of speech in practice, anti-sedition laws are used very judiciously and sparingly in liberal democracies. The necessity to defy or rise up against a government elected by universal, adult suffrage is both minimal and risky at best. The legislative and judicial systems and the media of most democracies are very efficient in keep the government in check and make sedition quite unnecessary. Yet, the legal systems of most countries have held on to their sedition laws as this is the state’s ultimate legal option to prosecute the likes of terrorists, militants, and separatists threatening the safety, security, and integrity of the country.

IPC Section 124A

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.

A Historic Outlook

When Thomas Macaulay presented his draft penal law to Governor General George Eden, 1st Earl of Auckland, in 1837, his document included the law on sedition. This, however, was not part of the original Indian Penal Code enacted in 1860. About a decade later in 1870, the sedition law was inducted into the IPC. This law was used extensively to prosecute Indian freedom fighters and critics of the British administration in India. Some notable examples are the prosecution of Lokmanya Tilak in 1909 and Mahatma Gandhi in 1922. Following India’s independence all references to British India and the British monarchy were removed but the law stays on.

Sedition Vs Political Dissent

One of the greatest flaws of the sedition law comes from its weak or loose implementation. According to news reports that come up from time to time, indiscriminate use of the law has led to gross misuse. There have been instances where Kashmiri students have been booked under sedition for having spoken in favour of Pakistan and at times even for supporting the Pakistani cricket team.

Distinguishing judiciously between political dissent and sedition is often a tough call. Back in 2012, award-winning political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested on sedition charges for running his website “Cartoons Against Corruption” as a critique of the corrupt practices followed by government officials. In cases like this, it becomes difficult to distinguish between anti-national incitement and mere political dissent.

President’s Take

India’s first citizen, President Pranab Mukherjee, seemed to take a strong stand. At the valedictory event to commemorate the 155th anniversary of IPC, President Mukherjee said, “The IPC has undergone very few changes in the last 155 years…Even now, there are offences in the code which were enacted by the British to meet their colonial needs. Yet, there are many new offences which have to be properly defined and incorporated in the code”. He suggested that the Indian Penal Code needs a complete and thorough revision and their implementation requires considerable understanding and inclusiveness on the part of the police. Timed to perfection, the President’s views seem to resound that of the nation as a whole.

Are Indian Sedition Laws Outdated?

Why would a free country and a democracy such as India hold on to colonial sedition laws? Is it not the antithesis to freedom of political dissent? Are Indian sedition laws outdated and need to be discarded.

In all fairness, the explanations to the sedition law provided in the IPC 124A provide adequate protection against any misuse of the law in the context of a democracy. This section says that any comments made in disapprobation of the government or its administration or measures “without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection” or through legal means do not constitute an offence under this section.

In view of recent developments, and following the history of the application of IPC Section 124A in independent India, it now seems necessary to take a look at this law once more. While completely discarding the law may not be in the best interests of the nation, it is definitely worth an overhaul by the legislators of modern India.