190816 india supreme court
Supreme Court of India Image Credit: PTI

India’s Supreme Court took a brave step this week, and put on hold a law blatantly used to silence dissenters and critics by different governments. The 162 year old sedition law could very well be on its way out and it is not a moment too soon.

The court has said that no new sedition cases can be filed until the matter is sorted out with the government promising to re-examine the issue. Those already charged or jailed under the draconian law can approach the courts for bail immediately.

Within hours it was clear that the government was not too happy with the stay. Law Minister Kiren Rhijjiju even said the courts had crossed a ‘Laksman Rekha’ (boundary). Even though just a day earlier stories were flying thick and fast that the Prime Minister himself had directed a review of the colonial era law.

The fact is, several governments over the years have misused the sedition law to silence critics though data shows this trend has increased manifold since 2014. The Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana recently observed that sedition is being misused to trample upon citizens’ fundamental rights of free speech and liberty.

Section 124A defines sedition as: “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 shall be punished with imprisonment”

Colonial era relic

The sedition law was added to the Indian Penal Code in 1860. It was used extensively to curb political dissent during India’s independence movement against the British.

Freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Annie Besant, and Maulana Azad were charged under it. Gandhi went to jail for it. Back in 1962, the Supreme Court’s Kedar Nath Singh judgement gave the most authoritative order on the sedition law.

The five-judge Constitutional bench, while upholding the constitutional validity of section 124A, went on to say that criticism of public measures or comments on government action falls under the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression as long as the comments do not “incite people to violence against the government established by law” or are made “with the intention of creating public disorder”.

But over the years, this court order was tossed aside as the law was used to target opponents for the most absurd of reasons. Data complied by Article 14.com shows how sedition has been misused by various governments with an increase in cases during recent years.

Their data shows a 28% annual rise in sedition cases between 2014 and 2020 compared to the yearly average between 2010 and 2014. Almost 96% of sedition cases were filed against 405 Indians for criticising the government and politicians between 2010 and 2021.

No place for outdated law

The public conversation about sedition started back in 2012 when cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested under the UPA government,

Trivedi was put behind bars for two weeks for drawing cartoons about corruption.

In the past few years, people have been jailed for sedition for not standing up for the national anthem. A few weeks ago, the Maharashtra govt slapped sedition charges against MP Navneet Rana and her MLA husband for wanting to chant the Hanuman chalisa outside Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s home.

Author Arundhati Roy was slapped with a sedition case for her controversial remarks on Kashmir, young climate activist Disha Ravi was jailed for a while, journalists Vinod Dua and Siddique Kappan among others too have been at the receiving end.

In today’s India, there is no place for a law like sedition. Dissent and opposition is at the heart of any democracy. It is time to throw this colonial law out.