The archaic law isn’t in sync with the ethos of modern democracy. It’s time we junked it
Charges of sedition levelled against actor-turned politician from Karnataka Divya Spandana, popularly known as Ramya, has turned the spotlight on to India’s archaic sedition law once again. For starters, Ramya recently visited Pakistan for a meeting of young Parliamentarians from South Asia. On her return, the former Congress MP said: “Pakistan is not hell. People there are just like us. They treated us very well.” This remark irked one lawyer from Kodagu, about 250 km from Bangalore, who moved a court in Kodagu’s Somwarpet on 22 August against the Kannada actress, stirring a controversy.
Controversies are not new to India’s sedition law, or Section 124-A in the Penal Code, which the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru described “fundamentally unconstitutional”. Even though the exact number of cases filed with sedition charges in India is not available, reports suggest more than 300 of them have reached the high courts and 20 in the Supreme Court. In 2014 alone, 47 sedition cases came up across nine states, according to a report by the National Crime Records Bureau. Jharkhand, Bihar and Kerala top the chart with 18, 16 and five cases, respectively. Interestingly, and most obviously, sedition cases recently witnessed a slew of sensational court room dramas. For one, the arrest of students union leaders from Delhi’s JNU – Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid – under this anachronistic law triggered weeks-long protests against the Modi government. Besides Kanhaiya, Hardik Patel, leader of the Patel reservation agitation in Gujarat, was also slapped with sedition charges. A year ago, Tamil folk singer Kovan was arrested for a song that allegedly criticised AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa. He was slapped with sedition charges. In another sensitive case, earlier this month, a sedition case was filed against Amnesty International after the non-profit organisation held an event on Kashmir. Ramya is the latest entrant to this long litany of cases.
So, what does the sedition law actually state? Originally drafted by British historian and politician of the colonial era, Thomas Macaulay, this piece of legislation has a broad definition for sedition. For instance, the Section 124-A reads: “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 life imprisonment.” This section was introduced to the Indian Penal Code in 1870. Over the years, this law has been used by authorities to push political agenda. During the national movement, many freedom fighters, including Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, were charged with sedition. After Independence, in a number of cases, the Supreme Court had narrowed the scope of the definition of sedition. In the Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar case of 1962, a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court made it clear that allegedly seditious speech may be punished only if the speech is an ‘incitement’ to ‘violence’, or ‘public disorder’.
Again, in the Indra Das v. State of Assam case of 2011, the SC stated that only speech that amounts to “incitement to imminent lawless action” could be criminalised. In a landmark judgment that struck down the section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which had defined the punishment for sending “offensive” messages through a computer or any other communication devices, the apex court drew a clear distinction between “advocacy” and “incitement”, stating that only the latter could be punished. That said, notwithstanding these judicial attempts to interpret the sedition law in line with modern democratic values, the section is still being widely used, with the cases of Kanhaiya, Amnesty and Ramya being examples. And, from the looks of it, the list is only to grow, unless India junks it.