The increasing use of the sedition law by the authorities in recent years has led to allegations that this colonial-era provision is being invoked largely to stifle the citizens’ freedom of speech and expression, which is guaranteed by the Constitution. The arrest of environment activist Disha Ravi over a toolkit in support of the protesting farmers is a case in point. Even though the document makes no mention of violence or incitement to violent behaviour, the 22-year-old woman has been booked on the charge of sedition. Whether she was aware of the Khalistani leanings of the group allegedly behind the toolkit has also not been established so far. Amid the outrage over Disha’s arrest, a Delhi court has granted bail to a man accused of posting fake videos on Facebook on the farmers’ protests. The court has asserted that the sedition law cannot be invoked to ‘quieten disquiet under the pretence of muzzling the miscreants’, especially if there is no ‘exhortation or incitement to create disorder or disturb public peace or resort to violence’.
There is no denying that Section 124A (sedition) of the IPC is a powerful tool that the State can use any time for the purpose of maintaining peace and order. However, its indiscriminate application threatens to undermine its potency and efficacy. Even as the number of sedition cases registered in India has risen from 35 in 2016 to 93 in 2019, the conviction rate has been going down — from 33 per cent in 2016 to merely 3 per cent in 2019. No wonder the persons acquitted or discharged considerably outnumber those who are sentenced.
In Kedar Nath Singh versus State of Bihar (1962), the Supreme Court had made it clear that ‘strong words used to express disapprobation of the measures of the Government with a view to their improvement or alteration by lawful means’ did not amount to sedition. This ruling puts the onus on law enforcers to come up with indisputable evidence of incitement to violence or disturbance of public peace. Raising the bogey of sedition on flimsy pretexts will only weaken the law and enfeeble democracy.