Section 124A

Sedition Law–a British Legacy

I M Sharma

In the colonial period one of the most hated provisions of law was the section 124-A IPC. But no concerted agitation was conducted to secure its repeal. Perhaps, in the wake of more and more severe repressive laws being ever made by the British imperialists to suppress the popular movements for liberation, the wrath against section 124-A would have naturally receded to the backseats with the furore against more repressive laws charging all the energies and endeavours of the nationalists. At least after independence the democratic and socialist sections ought to have launched agitations for repeal of this section as also other repressive colonial legacies like the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1932–all of which have been blessed by the wand of Article 372 but unfortunately that did not happen either.

The Sedition Law came into full force in 1870. In 1973 under Indira Gandhi government, it became a cognisable offence. Several social activists and journalists have accused of sedition for making certain remarks. Between 2014 and 2019, 326 sedition cases were registered in the country. Charge sheets were filed in 141 cases but only 6 people were convicted.

Section 124A, according to the website states, “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the government established by law in [India] shall be punished with imprisonment to 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….”

With the becoming of Sri N V Ramana, J, an ardent religious devotee but somewhat influenced by radical social transformation concepts in his student days, as the Chief Justice of India, the need and relevance of the Sedition Clause–Section 124A IPC–came to the fore when some writ petitions were filed questioning its constitutionality; and the same judicially queried in Court and an interim order was passed to be operative all over India that nobody be arrested/pursued under Section 124A IPC even if it is charged on them. Some excerpts from the Order dated 11-05-2022 in S G Vombatkere v. Union of India (WP (C) No. 682/2021 & others) by a three Judge Bench comprising Sri N V Ramana, CJI, Surya Kant, J. and Hima Kohli, J. are relevant and important to be cited here:

“... petitions filed challenging the constitutionality of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code... the offence of sedition.”

Then the Court referred extensively to the affidavit filed by the Government of India in this regard:

“On 09.05.2022, an affidavit... filed on behalf of Union of India, averring ...:

“ far as Section 124A is concerned, there are divergence of views expressed in public domain by various jurists, academicians, intellectuals and citizens in general. While they agree about the need for statutory provisions to deal with serious offences of divisive nature affecting the very sovereignty and integrity of the Country, acts leading to destabilising the government established by law by means not authorised by law or prohibited by law. ...However, concerns are raised about its application and abuse for the purposes not intended by law.

The Hon’ble Prime Minister of India has been cognisant of various views expressed on the subject and has also periodically, in various forums, expressed his clear and unequivocal views in favour of protection of civil liberties, respect for human rights and giving meaning to the constitutionally cherished freedoms by the people of the country. He has repeatedly said that one of India’s strengths is the diverse thought streams that beautifully flourish in our country.

The Hon’ble PM believes that at a time when our nation is marking ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ (75 years since independence) we need to, as a nation, work even harder to shed colonial baggage that has passed its utility, which includes outdated colonial laws and practices. In that spirit, the Government of India has scrapped over 1500 outdated law since 2014-15. ongoing process. These were laws and compliances which reeked of a colonial mind set and thus have no place in today’s India.

The Government of India, being fully cognisant of various view being expressed on the subject of sedition and also having considered the concern of civil liberties and human rights, while committed to maintain and protect the sovereignty and integrity of this great nation, has decided to re-examine and re-consider the provision of section 124A of the Indian Penal Code which can only be done before the Competent Forum.

In view of the aforesaid it is this respectfully submitted that this Hon’ble Court may not invest time in examining the validity of Section 124A once again and be pleased to await the exercise of reconsideration to be undertaken by the Government of India...’’

Appreciating the tenor and purport of the affidavit, the Court held:

“...It is clear that the Union of India agrees with the prima facie opinion expressed by this Court that the rigours of Section 124A of IPC is not in tune with the current social milieu, and was intended for a time when this country was under the colonial regime. In light of the same, the Union of India may reconsider the aforesaid provision of law.

...Court is cognisant of security interests and integrity of the State on one hand, and the civil liberties of citizens on the other. There is a requirement to balance both sets of considerations, which is a difficult exercise. The case of the petitioners is that this provision of law dates back to 1898, and pre-dates the Constitution itself, and is being misused. The Attorney General had also, on an earlier date of hearing, given some instances of glaring misuse of this provision, like in the case of recital of the Hanuman Chalisa.

Therefore, we expect that, till the re-examination of the provision is complete, it will be appropriate not to continue the usage of the aforesaid provision of law by the Governments.

In view of the clear stand taken by the Union of India, we deem it appropriate to pass the following order in the interest of justice:

a.     The interim stay granted in W.P.(Crl.)No.217/2021 along with W.P.(Crl.)No.216/2021 vide order dated 31.05.2021 shall continue to operate till further orders.

b.    We hope and expect that the State and Central Governments will restrain from registering any FIR, continuing any investigation or taking any coercive measures by invoking Section 124A of IPC while the aforesaid provision of law is under consideration.

c.     If any fresh case is registered under Section 124A of IPC, the affected parties are at liberty to approach the concerned Courts for appropriate relief. The Courts are requested to examine the reliefs sought, taking into account the present order passed as well as the clear stand taken by the Union of India.

d.    All pending trials, appeals and proceedings with respect to the charge framed under Section 124A of IPC are kept in abeyance. Adjudication with respect to other Sections, if any, could proceed if the Courts are of the opinion that no prejudice would be caused to the accused.

e.     In addition to the above, the Union of India shall be at liberty to issue the Directive as proposed and placed before us, to the State Governments/Union Territories to prevent any misuse of Section 124A of IPC.”

The latest order dated 1 May 2023 in this writ petition reads:
1.    ‘‘Mr R Venkataramani, Attorney General for India, states that, in pursuance of the order dated 11 May 2022, the Government has initiated the process of re-examining the provisions of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code 1860 and the consultations are at a substantially advanced stage.

2.    In view of the above submission, on the request of the Attorney General, we direct that the proceedings be posted on 8 August 2023”.

[CJI (Mr Justice Chandrachood) and Pardiwala J.]
Very Recently this writer had a telephonic talk with Sri Binayak Sen (based in Kolkata) who clarified that his appeal against the life sentence passed on him under Section 124A IPC is pending in the Chattisgarh High Court and as per the above decision of the Apex Court he also applied for keeping that in abeyance. He expressed the hope that not in distant future the sedition clause might itself be removed from the penal code but pointed out that he was also charged under the draconian UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967) the provisions of which continue to suffocate his liberties.

Human Rights bodies across the country condemn the section 124A of the Indian Penal Code and support the order of the honourable bench presided by Chief Justice of Supreme court N V Ramana to keep all pending trials, appeals and proceedings with respect to the charge framed under Section 124A of the Indian penal Code on hold, which deals with the offence of sedition till the central government completes the promised exercise to reconsider and re-examine the provision. If anything, the Supreme Court should evaluate the constitutional validity of the Section 124A of the Indian penal Code and completely repeal the draconian law.


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Vol 56, No. 17-20, Oct 22 - Nov 18, 2023