SC Asks Centre Why 'Colonial Era' Sedition Law Is Needed 75 Years After Independence

A bench headed by Chief Justice N.V, Ramana asked the Centre, which is repealing stale laws, as to why it was not getting rid of this provision.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday, July 15, expressed concern over the misuse of the “colonial-era” penal law on sedition, questioning why the Union government had not struck it down.

It sought the response of the Centre on pleas including the one filed by the Editors Guild of India challenging the validity of the provision.

A bench headed by Chief Justice N.V, Ramana said the main concern was about the “misuse of law”, and asked as to why the Centre, which is repealing stale laws, was not getting rid of this provision.

“This dispute about law is concerned, its colonial law, it was meant to suppress the freedom movement, the same law was used by British to silence Mahatma Gandhi, Tilak etc. Still is it necessary after 75 years of Independence?” LiveLaw quoted CJI Ramana as having said.

The CJI used other analogies to describe the extent of misuse that the sedition law lends itself to.

Also read: Supreme Court’s Observations on Sedition, Journalism Welcome But Don’t Go Far Enough

“The enormous power of this section can be compared to a carpenter being given a saw to make an item, [and who] uses it to cut the entire forest instead of a tree. That’s the effect of this provision,” the CJI also said.

Attorney General K.K. Venugopal, while defending the validity of the provision, said, “Some guidelines may be laid down to curb misuse of sedition law.”

The CJI also said that while he was not blaming any particular government for its misuse, it can be compared to Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, against the use of which a separate bench of the Supreme Court had recently come down.

“Unfortunately, the executing agency and particularly the authorities misuse it. Take example of 66A which was struck down but people were arrested. There is misuse of these provisions, but there is no accountability,” he said.

CJI Ramana also said that the powers under Section 124A are “so vast that a police officer who wants to fix anybody for playing cards, gambling, etc.” can also invoke the section.

The bench was hearing a fresh plea by former army officer Major-General (retired) S.G. Vombatkere alleging that the section is “wholly unconstitutional and should be unequivocally and unambiguously struck down”.

The petitioner contended that a statute criminalising expression based on unconstitutionally vague definitions like “disaffection towards government” is an unreasonable restriction on the fundamental right to free expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) and causes constitutionally impermissible “chilling effect” on speech.

The petition said there is need to take into account the “march of the times and the development of the law” before dealing with Section 124A.

Earlier, a separate bench of the top court had sought response from the Centre on a plea challenging the constitutional validity of sedition law filed by two journalists, Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha and Kanhaiya Lal Shukla, working in Manipur and Chhattisgarh respectively.

Notable sedition cases in the recent past include one against a Lakshadweep filmmaker, Aisha Sultana, for referring to the island’s administrator Praful K. Patel as a ‘bioweapon’ on a television channel debate, criticising his decision to do away with mandatory quarantine in the island.

The Kerala high court, granting her anticipatory bail, had said, “There is no apparent indication in her statement, which amounts to imputations or assertions prejudicial to the national interest, nor does it propagate any class of persons against another group of persons.”

In June, the Supreme Court quashed sedition and other charges that were registered against journalist Vinod Dua by a BJP leader from Himachal Pradesh for making comments critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Central government.

The Supreme Court on May 31 said that it “is time to define the limits of sedition,” noting that sections of the Indian Penal Code that deal with sedition require interpretation, particularly in the context of media freedom.