Sedition Laws in India: A Persisting Threat to Democracy

As described in section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, sedition is committed when: "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 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."


This law was introduced in 1860 by the British colonialists in India to suppress any rebel or political uprising against the colonial government. It was introduced after the revolt of 1857 to vanquish the expression of dissent against the oppressive government. However, even today, in the world's largest democracy, this law still prevails and is being misused to clear out the political competition and assert the supremacy of the current government. Media personnel, public awareness organisations and individuals, are being restrained from presenting their views on the methods, working, and legislation introduced by the government, curtailing their right to freedom of speech and expression as provided by the constitution of India in Article 19(1)(a).


In Kedarnath Singh vs State of Bihar on 20 January 1962, it was held that dissent against the government is not considered sedition. The law of sedition is applied to exceptional cases of national security and sovereignty.

Speaking in broader terms, sedition laws, in themselves, are not a threat to democracy. The individualistic interpretations and different perspectives prevailing in society regarding the sedition law creates problems. It is required that the judicial system of India define the boundaries of the sedition law.

Sedition law has become a way for the executive branch of the government to harass people by booking them under sedition cases—controlling people's mindset and personal opinions. Even after the judiciary has stated in many cases that presenting one's opinions and views or even criticising the government does not fall in the ambit of sedition if it does not create violence or incites people to disrupt public order.


Misuse of sedition law can be seen most recently when the Citizenship Amendment Act, the three Farm Bills, and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill were passed. Many were filed under the sedition law and were punished just because they showed dissent towards the government policies. How can a law that was formulated to suppress freedom fighters working to emancipate the country from the bondage of the colonial power prevail during a democratic government? When passing the 1st Amendment Bill in the Constituent Assembly, Jawaharlal Nehru called the sedition law "obnoxious." When tried under sedition for publishing an article in a newspaper journal, Mahatma Gandhi called this law a "prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizens." Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. It was introduced to control the subjects of a monarchy from publishing anything against the monarch that could create disaffection among the general people. It was introduced for a monarchial or tyrannical form of government and not for a democratic one. Sedition law infringes the very spirit of the democratic government.


The United Kingdom, which introduced this law in India, abolished it in 2009. Even after 75 years of independence, the laws introduced by the oppressive government continues to silence the spirit of nationalism among Indians. Many nationalist leaders were tried under this and sent to prison. Atrocities of the colonial period remain in the form of the law that they introduced to control the citizens.


Sedition law needs to be abolished as its misuse is a threat to citizens and creates a hurdle in exercising their rights. India needs to move from the status of a developing country to a developed one. It is required to ensure that the citizens have the right to criticise the government they vote into power. When the government remains under public scrutiny, it works efficiently towards the welfare of the citizens. It will also aid in making India truly democratic. With the abolishment of the sedition law, the atrocities and the tyranny of the colonial government will finally come to a halt, making India truly independent.

Sedition law needs to end also because our nationalist leaders who were detained on the charges of sedition always wanted the end of this law as it is oppression against our fundamental constitutional values. With the end of the sedition law, there will be a check on the powers exercised by the police officers, political leaders, and political parties who framed charges of sedition on the citizens without any evidential circumstances of any incitement of violence.


According to the Ministry of Home Affairs report, 326 cases were registered under sedition between 2014 and 2019. This was cited by the Supreme Court while showing concern over the rising misuse of the law. The Supreme Court also asked the union government why it is not abolishing the law, which the colonial government had used to oppress the freedom movements and leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi.

Attorney General K.K. Venugopal, on his part, cleared that the entire section need not be struck off, and the court can lay down its guidelines to meet the legal purpose of the law. A bench headed by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana remarked, "unfortunately, continuance of this law after 75 years…. This government has been scrapping many obsolete laws. We don't know why they are not looking into this law? Continuance of this law is a serious threat to the functioning of institutions and individual's liberty." The bench also asked if there is a need to keep this law in the statute book.


Until this law persists in India, the very need of the hour is that the apex court must define its boundaries. As it is a serious issue, people charged under sedition face significant difficulties in society; people start calling them anti-national or even a terrorist. Society and their relatives condemn them even though they merely express their views. Issues that are discussed by common people casually in their everyday lives become anti-national if they reach a more prominent platform or are addressed in a public meeting. Society, in a way, isolates them so that their names are not associated with "an anti-national", without even knowing the facts and law. The rights of citizens are infringed because they are not aware of their rights and legal provisions. The apex court has also taken a step to abolish this law, but the citizens do not acknowledge the issue's seriousness.


We can conclude that sedition law that represents the brutality of the colonial era needs to go as there is no point in a law that curtails fundamental human rights. The law has been in force for approximately 200 years in India and shows the backwardness and conformist approach towards the modern world. The judiciary is bound by the legislation to take action. At least, the legislature must take steps towards positive change in society.


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