Overview: Sedition Law in India
Sedition Law in India: The Crown to Indian Parliament
Sedition in India refers to the act of inciting violence, rebellion, or public disorder against the established government. In this blog we have provided an introduction to sedition. This blog also covers the landmark judgment on sedition law in India and also talks about the constitutional validity of the law. At the end the blog covers the topic on the future of sedition in India by discussing the new bill passed in Lok Sabha regarding the law dealing with sedition in India.
Sedition is the act of inciting or motivating people to rebel against a monarchy or state's authority. The reason it is usually regarded as a serious crime is that it compromises a government's security and stability. If voicing strong disagreements with the government is interpreted as a direct threat to the state, it may be illegal in some jurisdictions to do so. Legislation prohibiting sedition is frequently weighed against the fundamental human right to freedom of speech and expression. Maintaining this equilibrium is essential to a democratic society.
Sedition law in India-
Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) defines sedition in India. According to Section 124A, anyone who incites or attempts to incite hatred or contempt towards the legally established Indian government through words, written or spoken, signs, visible representation, or any other means faces a life sentence, to which a fine may be added, or a sentence of up to three years in prison, to which a fine may also be added, or both. The conflict between the right to free speech and the state's duty to protect public safety and order is a common theme in Indian sedition cases. The key elements of the offense of sedition in India are:
- Bringing hatred or contempt towards the government: The statement or act in question must bring or attempt to bring hatred or contempt towards the government established by law in India.
- Exciting disaffection towards the government: The statement or act must excite or attempt to excite disaffection (a feeling of opposition or hostility) towards the government.
Landmark and the first Indian court case that addresses the meaning of the sedition charge under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code is Queen Empress v. Jogendra Chunder Bose (IPC). This case had a big impact on how Indian laws against sedition were perceived.
Case study - Queen Empress v. Jogendra Chunder Bose
In 1891, the editor of the newspaper "Bangobasi," Jogendra Chunder Bose, a leader of Bengali nationalism, was accused of sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. He was charged with writing articles that attacked the British government's actions regarding the choice to raise the legal age of consent for sexual activity to 12 years old. Indians were urged to oppose British rule by Bangobasi, who claimed that it was an attack on Indian morality and tradition. Because the colonial authorities saw Bose's writings as seditious, he was arrested and put on trial.
Jogendra Chunder Bose's defence team contended throughout the trial that the sedition law (Section 124A) was unconstitutional because it infringed upon the then-guaranteed right to freedom of speech and expression under the Indian Constitution. The defence argued that criticising the government did not always indicate a desire to undermine law and order or cause public disturbance.
The court determined that unless there was a clear call for violence or civil unrest, criticising the government did not amount to sedition in this instance. The judge applied a narrow interpretation of the law, ruling that unless there was an incitement to violence, criticism of government actions did not qualify as sedition.
By limiting the definition of sedition in India, the Queen Empress v. Jogendra Chunder Bose case established a significant precedent. The ruling made it clear that, in accordance with Section 124A of the IPC, strong criticism of the government that does not incite violence is not considered sedition. This interpretation greatly affected how sedition laws were perceived in India and shaped later legal debates and cases involving the right to free speech and expression.
Constitutional validity of Sedition-
This law has constantly been criticized for restricting our "freedom of expression" several times. It is also argued to be unclear how it has been sustained in a secular and independent country with democracy. Here are few of the cases in which courts gave their different decision regarding the constitutional validity of sedition-
- Tara Singh Gopi Chand v. The State- P&H High Court held S.124A unconstitutional on the grounds of free speech violation.
- Ram Nandan v. State of UP- in this case the Allahabad HC held S.124A unconstitutional as the restrictions it imposed on free speech was not in 'public interest'.
- Kedar Nath Singh v. State of Bihar- In this case SC overruled all the HC decisions and held sedition as a valid exception to free speech. And predicated the applicability of sedition on the likelihood of causing violence.
- Common Cause v. Union of India- The petition filed in this case sought a strict framework for the police, magistrates and government to deal with sedition and prosecution. A division bench noted that Kedar Nath judgment offered sufficient guidelines for sedition and it was unnecessary to revisit this issue.
- Sabir Raza v. The State- the court in this case held that the speech even if it disrupts public order, cannot be penalised under sedition
- Aditya Ranjan v. Union of India- In this judgement PIL challenging the constitutional validity of S. 124A was dismissed for lack of locus standi.
Future of Sedition law in India-
The Indian sedition law's future is unclear and dependent on a number of variables, such as political will, court challenges, and public opinion. A number of people, including politicians, activists, and legal professionals, have called for the repeal or amendment of the sedition law in order to preserve free speech and bring it into compliance with democratic ideals. In the case of S.G. VOMBATKERE V. UNION OF INDIA the Supreme Court put a stay on Section 124A. The bench led by the then-CJI N V Ramana stated that the sedition law, enacted to prosecute freedom fighters and maintain colonial rule over the nation, has since been misused owing to its broad interpretation and it shall not be used until further orders were issued by the court.
Further Home Minister Amit Shah introduced three comprehensive criminal law bills in the Lok Sabha on August 11, 2023, claiming that these legislative actions would eradicate the last remaining traces of colonial rule and repeal the current sedition law. However, upon closer inspection, Clause 150 of the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita Bill, which is related to sedition, is once again included in the new criminal law bills. Renamed as "Acts Endangering the Sovereignty, Unity and Integrity of India," this section intensifies punitive measures against democratic dissent while broadening the range and gravity of acts that are punishable.
Seditious speech laws have a lengthy history and have generated discussion and criticism. Some contend that these laws are necessary to protect citizens from provocative statements and divisive ideologies, to preserve a nation's integrity and stability, and to put an end to unrest. Laws differ and change as societies do. Legislators and legal systems must constantly review and update these laws to ensure that they adhere to societal ideals and international human rights standards.
When we examine the change from Section 124A to the new Clause 150 of the BNS, we find that while the latter is hailed as a break from colonial legacies, it might unintentionally bind us even more to them. Although Clause 150 is portrayed as a revolutionary, post-colonial development, its language points to a more restrictive interpretation, possibly serving as a weapon in the hands of the State to stifle democratic expression.
 Queen-Empress vs Jogendra Chunder Bose And Ors (1892) ILR 19 Cal 35
 Tara Singh Gopi Chand v. State (1951 CriLJ 449)
 1958 SCC OnLine All 117
 AIR 1962 SC 955
 (2016) 15 SCC 269
 Sabir Raza vs State, 1962 AIR 1955