Petition Challenges Sedition Law in Supreme Court

The misapplication of the sedition law inhibits opposition against the ruling party and violates freedom of expression, in addition to harassing the accused.

Concerned at the increasing number of ‘sedition’ cases being filed across the country, the latest being the slapping of this charge against Amnesty India for organising a debate on Kashmir, a writ petition was filed on Wednesday challenging this provision in the Indian Penal Code.

Petitioners Common Cause, a NGO and S.P. Udayakumar (anti-nuclear activist against whom sedition charges have been made) through advocate Prashant Bhushan said that there has been an increase in the number of cases of sedition against intellectuals, activists, students, with the latest being the sedition charge on Amnesty India.

The petition wants the Supreme Court to address the misuse and misapplication of IPC Section 124 A (sedition law) by the Centre and various state governments leading to routine persecution of students, journalists and intellectuals engaged in social activism. It submitted that these charges are framed with a view to instill a fear and to scuttle dissent and are in complete violation of the scope of sedition law as laid down by constitution bench judgment of the Supreme Court in the Kedarnath vs State of Bihar case. The judgment said that only those acts which involve incitement to violence or violence itself, constitute a seditious act.

In the petition, a prayer is being made for the issuance of an appropriate writ, order or direction, making it compulsory for the concerned authority to produce a reasoned order from the director general of police (DGP) or the commissioner of police, as the case maybe, certifying that the ‘seditious act’ either led to the incitement of violence or had the tendency or the intention to create public disorder, before any FIR is filed or, any arrest is made on the charges of sedition against any individual.

In the various cases that have been filed in the recent years, the charges of sedition against the accused have failed to stand up to judicial scrutiny. The petitioner is therefore seeking a strict compliance of the Constitutional Bench judgment of Supreme Court in Kedarnath in which the scope of sedition as a penal offence was laid down and it was held that the gist of the offence of sedition is “incitement to violence” or the “tendency or the intention to create public disorder”.

It was submitted that those actions which do not involve violence or tendency to create public disorder, such as organisation of debates/discussions, drawing of cartoons, criticism of the government etc., do not constitute the offence of sedition.

Section 124A IPC says “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.

The petitioners regretted that though more than 50 years after the Kedarnath judgment, Section 124A of IPC is being allowed to be put to use irrespective of whether or not the alleged act or words are, in fact, seditious acts, or words constituting a “tendency to cause public disorder or incitement to violence”. In carrying out arrests and slapping charges, the police and the governments have rarely, if ever, respected this restriction. Successive governments have blatantly used Section 124A to stifle the voice of dissent and to further their political goals.

Quoting statistics they said according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) Report, 2014 as many as 47 sedition cases were reported in 2014 alone, across nine Indian states. Many of these cases did not involve violence or incitement to violence, which is a pre-requisite for a sedition charge. It was submitted that as per the NCRB figures total of 58 persons were arrested in connection with these cases, but the government has managed only one conviction.

It said in 1979, India ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which sets forth internationally recognised standards for the protection of freedom of expression. However, misuse of sedition law under Section 124A and arbitrary slapping of charges continue to restrict speech in ways inconsistent with ICCPR. In the Kedarnath judgment the apex court unequivocally narrowed the scope of Section 124A, but it continues to be misused. Thereby, making it imperative that this court issues necessary directions and guidelines to uphold its decision in Kedarnath which is also compatible with India’s international obligations.

The petitioner acknowledges that words which directly provoke violence or which directly threaten the maintenance of public order may deserve censure. However, that is not what the misapplication of sedition law seeks to achieve. The present practice of misapplication of sedition law violates the Kedarnath judgment. It further aims to crush all opposition to the ruling political party. Its regular use continues to have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and expression in the country. It was submitted that though a very small number of sedition cases leads to actual conviction, it causes harassment of individuals till the time judgment comes out, which in various cases takes many years to come.

Meanwhile, persons charged with sedition have to live without their passport, are barred from government jobs, and must produce themselves in the court at all times as and when required. A person so charged also has to spend money on regular legal fee. The charges have rarely stuck in most of the cases, but the process itself becomes the punishment. The petitioners prayed for a review of all pending sedition cases and for criminal complaints for sedition made before a judicial magistrate with a view to curb the misuse and misapplication of sedition law.