Constitutional Law

Are Sedition Laws Unconstitutional?

By Aaron S John

Introduction

The sedition laws are considered to be one of the most criticized laws in India. It has from time and time headlined the news articles and posts. It is considered to be a draconian law by many journalists. Many journalists also believe that this is used as a tool by the politicians in power to suppress any sort of criticism and to prevent citizens from voicing their honest opinions against the government. This is a very important topic as more and more cases regarding this have been filed in recent times and the Hon’ble Supreme Court plays a major role in this case. Now that this law has been scrapped, many are rejoicing as all the prisoners will be released and the proper enjoyment of Article 19.

History 

To understand more about this law, we need to know about its history. This law traces its origin back to the British Treason Felony Act 1848. This act of the parliament was to protect the King and Queen’s reputation and save them from any sort of defamation done by the citizens of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Initially, the punishment awarded under this was the death penalty but with time it just reduced to felonies. 

Sir James Fitzjames Stephen in the year 1870 introduced the concept of sedition which prescribed a punishment extending to life imprisonment for any action that would incite disaffection against the empress and her government in India. Though after its enactment it was only inactive for a long time. The first time it was filed against an Indian was in the year 1897, against Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Though in 2009 this law was abolished as the Britishers believed that this law did not go well with the freedom of expression. 

Sedition Law

Sedition laws can be filed against anyone whether it be an individual or a group of protesters. As seen in the past years this law does not limit itself to the right-wing, left-wing, or liberal politicians. Sedition law is simply said to be an act of spreading this disaffection against the government.

Supreme Court lawyer Atul Kumar has stated that

 “There is a thin line between criticizing the government, making false propaganda against the government, and trying to destabilize the government. Destabilizing a democratically elected government certainly falls under the purview of sedition law.”

In the Landmark case of Kedarnath Singh v. State of Bihar (1962), the Hon’ble Supreme Court ruled that every citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the government. The five-judge bench further added that a person can criticize the government but should not make statements that will incite people to become violent. 

Important Case Law

Kedar Nath Singh vs the State of Bihar

One of the main case laws was the Kedar Nath Singh vs the State of Bihar. This was the first case law that challenged Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. The main issue under this case was to question Section 124A and 505 of the Indian Penal Code under the purview of Article 19(1)(a) and Article 19(2) for being ultra vires.

The court held that the security of the state and maintaining law and order are the basic functions of the and the offender has to be punished for their wrongdoings. The court also said that the state’s integrity and sovereignty are also very important. Hence, above all certain restrictions are needed for the well-functioning of the government. In the end, it stated that this section was not ultra-vires, instead was intra-vires. Intra-vires states that the laws are in the preview of the constitution and not unconstitutional. Hon’ble Supreme Court held that section 124A and section 505 of the Indian penal code were intra-vires. 

Hence the court held that section 124A does not take away any fundamental rights including the right to speech and expression but acts as a reasonable restriction which is very important for the security and sovereignty of a state also held that all the fundamental rights have reasonable restrictions that is all the fundamental rights are not completely absolute like seen in the other laws there are reasonable restrictions imposed.

Recently another important case is the Vinod Dua vs Union of India case. In this case, Vinod Dua who is a journalist had uploaded a video on his YouTube channel in which he made some comments against the Modi government. This attracted a sedition case against him, though he was luckier than most of the other journalists as his plea to the Supreme Court to acquit him from these charges was successful. The Hon’ble Supreme Court establishes the fact that anything is written or said that will incite violence or hatred towards the government and violence against others will be considered sedation.

Mostly when a case of sedition is filed against an individual, other charges like: 

  • Article 124A deals with sedition 
  • Article 268 deals with public nuisance 
  • Article 501 deals with printing matters that are defamatory 
  • Article 505 deals with statements that are conducive to public mischief

Conclusion

In my opinion, sedition laws are one of those laws which sound very effective and necessary on paper but on execution turn into a disaster. As mentioned before the sedition laws were enacted by the Britishers to keep a check on its citizens and not let them demean or badmouth the King or the Queen. When this law transitioned into criminal law in India for the most part was not used for its intended purpose. As seen in recent times this has been used and exploited to the maximum. The whole intent of filing this case on someone is to stop him from promoting hatred towards the government and inciting violence but many times it is used to silence the voice of the critics rather than to agree and accept the wrongs. The law and its execution are completely different and the line between what can cause violence and promote hatred against the government or what consists of being a healthy criticism and what is just defamation is interpreted by different people in different ways. Often leading to confusion and the person being called an anti-national or a deshdrohi. Overall, this is a great step towards the development of India and its citizens. Scrapping this draconian law will lead to better news reporting and more accountability as people now can be more open and straightforward without thinking about getting arrested by the cops.

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