After over seven decades of Independence, India is struggling to get rid of the sedition law — widely misused against activists and journalists. In view of its ‘chilling effect’, the Supreme Court has decided to examine the archaic Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in the context of media freedom after the filing of sedition cases against journalists in Andhra Pradesh. According to Section 124A, a person commits sedition if he/she brings or attempts to bring in hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India. It attracts life imprisonment.
After Independence, sedition was proposed in the Constituent Assembly as one of the grounds to restrict freedom of speech and expression. But KM Munshi opposed it, saying that if sedition were allowed to stay, ‘an erroneous impression would be created that we want to perpetuate 124A of the IPC or its meaning which was considered good law in earlier days.’ After the Constitution came into force, the Punjab High Court in Tara Singh Gopi Chand v. the State (1951) declared Section 124A unconstitutional. Once described as ‘highly objectionable and obnoxious’ by Nehru, Section 124A continues to be on the statute book, thanks to the First Amendment piloted by him that added ‘public order’ to Article 19(2) as a ground to restrict free speech.
It was on the basis of public order in Article 19(2) that the SC, in Kedarnath Singh’s case (1962), upheld the validity of Section 124A. However, the court restricted its scope to some extent. In Balwant Singh’s case (1995), it let off two men accused of raising anti-India slogans, hours after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, saying that raising of slogans a couple of times — which neither evoked any response nor any reaction from the public — couldn’t attract sedition. The court’s comment about possible filing of sedition cases against news channels for showing a body being thrown into a river indicates that the problem runs much deeper. Many countries, including the UK and Australia, have abolished the sedition law. It’s time for India to follow suit.