Why India’s Sedition Law needs to be changed

Art by Helen Cui.

Sedition, which refers to an overt conduct against an established order has taken on a different meaning in India. Originally introduced by Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1870,  it has remained a part of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) since then. It was used as a tool to oppress the freedom movement and suppress all forms of dissent by Indians against British rule. The British Raj had accused almost all stalwarts of the Indian Freedom Struggle of sedition against the government. Yet today the sedition law stands not as a relic of the Indian struggle but as an active weapon used by the government against its own citizens

Does the law protect the citizens?

The Sedition Law states, “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 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.” The few words that try to narrow the extent of the law only seem to further convulate the law. What counts as attempting to excite violence? Who decides whether an action excites violence? On the district-police level, it is the police authorities who exercise the power to decide what constitutes  “exciting violence”. However, the requirement for imposing restrictions must be that there is a clear and present danger to India’s sovereignty, security, and integrity.

Even after the 1950s, when numerous courts had judged the sedition law unconstitutional, it was the judgement of the Apex Court in the case, Kedar Nath Singh against the (Indian) State of Bihar, that overturned them all, and declared the sedition law constitutional. They had reiterated, “disloyalty to Government established by law is not the same thing as commenting in strong terms upon the measures or acts of Government, or its agencies, so as to ameliorate the condition of the people or to secure the cancellation or alteration of those acts or measures by lawful means.” Thus, the subversive act of overthrowing the democratically elected government, or even planning to, is sedition. Exciting violence against the state is a crime, but expressing a non-violent opinion is a democratic right.

Still, the law has a problem: its poor wording, combined with its broad usages, fail to differentiate between sedition and dissent. The police have the authority to label free speech as sedition, and thereafter, it’s not so much their action but more the process of the judiciary that is a punishment. Sedition has only seen four court convictions since 2016, yet the number of cases filed remain on the rise. This low conviction rate but high accusation rate points to a bigger, hidden problem: the accused are put through the tormenting process of the judiciary. The individual is forced to give up their passport, is no longer permitted to apply for government jobs, has to be readily available to make multiple visits to the court, and their social reputation is damaged. Anyone can be accused of sedition. It is a terrifying way of controlling people, a cruel way to suppress dissent, and the ultimate tool to bend, alter, and form a consensus.

The biggest hindrance

As an artifact of its past, the sedition law was on the do-away agenda of India. It was not meant to be a part of the constitution of a free India. Long before independence, Mahatma Gandhi, in 1929, had written an editorial in Young India, calling for a countrywide agitation demanding the repeal of Section 124A. Another victim of the law, he had said, “(Sedition) is a rape of the word ‘Law’.” After independence from the British Raj, India was almost instantly put in a stressful situation. Revolts, uprisings, and violent groups were ready to take advantage of the critical time in order to overthrow the elected government. The murder of Mahatma Gandhi by an Hindu extremist who looked to make a Hindu Pakistan, and the declaration of an armed war on the Indian state by the local insurrections had put India in a tough spot. Added to this was the stress of accommodating refugees left by the India-Pakistan split. India did what any country or state would: protect itself.

It retaliated by banning the Organiser, a right-wing magazine, and the Crossroads, a left-wing weekly. Naturally, the editors of these journals approached the courts, who declared the ban unlawful. Then came one of the first compromises on freedom of speech in the form of an amendment; the state could restrict free speech when it “offends against decency or morality or which undermines the security of, or tends to overthrow, the State.”

Since then, multiple laws have taken shape, all to act upon this one caveat of freedom of speech. There are laws like the Official Secrets Act (the law provides a framework to deal with sedition and espionage among government officials) and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) that have seen usage from time to time. Under POTA, an individual could be detained for 180 days before necessary evidence alluding to terrorism had to be procured by police. POTA was put under scrutiny and removed in 2004, but was replaced by amendments to other laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). 

POTA was repealed because the parliament acknowledged its misuse. The ability to target someone who may or may not have said questionable things without any prior evidence is powerful. Since then, a number of changes have taken place in order to make the media more independent. The Prasar Bharati Act establishes a broadcasting corporation independent of the government. But all this goes to show is that although judicial review may add certain factors to acknowledge beforelaws can be used, like those recommended by the Apex Court in the Kedar Nath case, it is the parliament who needs to be proactive in bringing change in this law, as it is the biggest hindrance to the Sedition Law.

Future of the Law

Recently, an environmental activist, Disha Ravi, was arrested and accused of sedition for her alleged part in the formation of an online toolkit which contained information to further violence during a national-wide farmer’s protest in India. A city court quickly  granted her bail, declaring the evidence produced by police as “scanty and sketchy”. The Sedition Law is clearly being used as a loophole in the constitution to put citizens through the same type of oppression which the misuse of POTA allowed. The law satisfies the same functions that other laws, such as UAPA already does, but offers a level of freedom. Hatred, contempt, and exciting disaffection are all vague terms which allow false accusations of sedition upon people who are expressing their opinion.

Judicial reviews are unlikely to relook the law. Law cabinets, even as recent as 2018, reiterate what the Apex Court had mentioned. In itself, the Sedition Law only acts upon the reasonable restrictions placed upon freedom of speech. Unfortunately, the Sedition Law is conveniently used as a political tool, and is being used to suppress the voices of people in order to alter the general consensus. The current regime looks to make the Sedition Law more stringent, which will only worsen the condition. The oldest contemporary democracy in the world sees the liberty of its citizens deteriorating because of a consequence of its own freedom. It is either the law that has to be changed, or the public consensus, which will ironically invite sedition cases.

Bibliography

  1. Comments on Sedition, The Hindu, https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/should-the-sedition-law-be-scrapped/article30993146.ece, Written 20th March 2020, Accessed 24th March, 2021.
  2. The News Minute, https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/when-mahatma-gandhi-called-sedition-rape-word-law-49981, Accessed 24th March
  3. Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-farms-protests-idUSKBN2AN13D, Written February 2021, Accessed 24th March
  4. NDTV India, https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/can-sedition-be-redefined-in-a-country-like-india-asks-law-panel-1908910, Written 31st August 2018, Accessed 25th March
  5. The Nine Lives of the Sedition Law, https://www.livemint.com/Sundayapp/b9neXYTVckT0UBwvU7Ev4K/The-nine-lives-of-the-sedition-law.html, Written 5th February 2016, Accessed 25th March
  6. The Disha Ravi Case, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/toolkit-case-activist-disha-ravi-released-from-tihar-jail/articleshow/81176083.cms?from=mdr

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