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MISUSAGE OF SEDITION LAW IN INDIA

Updated: Nov 7, 2020

Author: Sharithira N K, V year of B.A.,LL.B.(Hons.) from Tamilnadu Dr. Ambedkar Law University, School of Excellence in Law, Chennai



Section 124A of Indian Penal Code defines the crime Sedition and also punishes the Seditious actions but this law has become a threat to the democracy, whenever people raise their voices against the government they have been accused with the Sedition charges. In India, authors, reporters, cartoonists[i], people who express their views in social media [ii], students who participated in the protest or school students who staged a play about protest were charged under Sedition [iii] which has made this law as a draconian law. This violates the right to freedom of speech and expression and right to protest under Article 19 of the Constitution. As Gandhiji said “Section 124A is designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen” Even after all these years these words are still relatable to the contemporary events. Meanwhile, one cannot develop or create a hatred feeling towards this nation and no citizen would do that but, concurrently, suppressing the voices of the citizens and leading a government is not a democratic country. In India, one particular government cannot be blamed for misusing the Sedition law. In fact, from the colonial government till now, the citizens have been filed under Sedition but whether these were charged genuinely or not has to be analyzed importantly. The Sedition law has always been debated about its existence and necessity.


This law was drafted in 1837 by Thomas Macaulay but was inexplicably omitted when the IPC was enacted in 1860. Later, Section 124A was inserted in 1870 by an amendment introduced by Sir James Stephen. The first Sedition case was filed on the editor of a newspaper named Bangobasi for criticizing 'Age of Consent Bill', no unanimous verdict was reached and the charges were dropped after issuing an apology. The effect of Section 124A was changed after Bal Gangadhar Tilak's Trial in 1897, Justice James Strachey presided over this trial, and broadened the scope of Section 124A by equating "disaffection" to "disloyalty". He interpreted that the term "feelings of disaffection" means hatred, enmity, dislike, hostility, contempt and every form of ill-will towards the government[iv]. Tilak was charged with Sedition and released after a year. Based on this interpretation it has been used against many nationalist leaders including Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Lal Lajpat Rai under Crown rule in India.


The Fundamental rights sub-committee headed by Vallabhbhai Patel placed a draft interim report on fundamental rights before the assembly on April 29,1947, while discussing the Rights of freedom, the CPI leader, Somnath Lahiri opposed the use of the word seditious in the exception of the Rights and fiercely debated regarding the inclusion of the word "Sedition" is the exception. After much debate, the draft Constitution of India was tabled on February 21, 1948. The debate on the rights was commenced on December 1, 1948, the representatives including KM Munshi, Sardar Hukum Singh, ThakurDas Bhargava and Seth Govind Das condemned the insertion of Sedition as a restriction. Consequently, the Sedition was dropped from the draft Constitution but remained in the IPC[v].

After removing the word Sedition from the exception the Constitutional validity of Sedition has been questioned in Independent India in the cases of Tara Singh Gopi Chand v. The State, Sabir Raza v. The State and Ram Nandan v. State. The Courts have opined and decided that Section 124A of the IPC had become void on the enforcement of the Constitution.


But, the Ram Nandan Decision was overruled by the Supreme Court in 1962 in Kedarnath v. the State Of Bihar and upheld the Constitutionality of Section 124A of IPC and differentiated between disloyalty to the Government and commenting upon the measures of the Government without inciting public disorder through acts of violence by stating that, disloyalty to Government established by law is not the same thing as commenting in strong terms upon the measures or acts of Government, or its agencies, to ameliorate the condition of the people or to secure the cancellation or alteration of those acts or measures by lawful means, that is to say, without exciting those feelings of enmity and disloyalty which imply excitement to public disorder or the use of violence[vi].


The main objective of why this law has been passed in India is to control the citizens who revolt against the Colonial government, even after all these years of independence this law still exists. Once, Jawaharlal Nehru mentioned Section 124A as a "highly objectionable and obnoxious and it should have no place both for practical and historical reasons, in any body of laws. The sooner we get rid of it the better". These words are reminiscent whenever it has been mishandled. In Indian History, the Sedition law has been grossly misused during the Emergency period[vii]. There is no assurance that in the future, the Sedition law will not be misused against citizens' rights but synchronously, the government has the responsibility to curb away from the anti-national elements in the society and so we cannot explicitly turn down the Sedition law.


There is numerous decision which has given interpretation to the Sedition law which can be used to determine whether a person's act is seditious or not which can be directed with the contemporary cases where Sedition charges were filed. Most commonly, the comments that have been shared in the social media and articles published by journalist, authors and cartoonist or any person who uses "media" as the platform has been charged with Sedition which can be decided based on the guidelines laid in the case of Sanskar Marathe v. State of Maharashtra and Ors:

  1. The words/signs/representations must bring the Government into hatred or contempt or must cause or attempt to cause disaffection, enmity or disloyalty to the Government and the words/signs/representation must also be an incitement to violence or must be intended or tend to create public disorder or a reasonable apprehension of public disorder;

  2. The words/signs/representations against politicians or public servants by themselves do not fall in this category unless the words/signs/representations show them as representative of the Government;

  3. Comments expressing disapproval or criticism of the Government to obtain a change of government by lawful means without any of the above are not seditious under Section 124A;

  4. A legal opinion in writing which gives reasons addressing the aforesaid must be obtained from Law Officer of the District followed within two weeks by a legal opinion in writing from Public Prosecutor of the State[viii].

But, divergently, the Sedition has been misused flagrantly. In recent times, the CAA protestors were charged under Sedition in different parts of the Nation[ix]. In 2016, JNU protest against the capital punishment given to Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat, the JNU student Union President of that time Kanhaiya Kumar and three others have charge under Sedition[x]. Students who have protested against J&K issue[xi], agitation against kudankulam power plant in Tamil Nadu[xii] and numerous incidents could be seen. JNU protest in 2016 has been mostly criticized due to the slogan raised the students which we could refer the case of Balwant Singh and Ors v. the State of Punjab was the case filed for shouting slogans and the court held that if slogans raised to incite people or create disorder, or had the slogans resulted in any other law and order problem, Section 124A would have been applicable and so for examining whether a speech or words, etc. are seditious, the real intent of those words, speech, etc. has to be considered[xiii].


Despite, the law commission's consulting paper still the conflicts in the sedition law tends to exist[xiv]. There has also been a conflict between BJP and Congress regarding repealing the Sedition law, Congress ought to repeal Sedition law while BJP opposes it and other major political parties take their stances and divided over Sedition law[xv]. Criticism of the Government is integral for the functioning of democracy and every criticism of the Government would not be considered as Sedition and if blatant charges have been filed it only brings down the efficiency of the law and acts as an imminent danger to the freedom of speech and expression and right to protest along with the failure of democratic government. Meanwhile, one cannot give a wide interpretation to the Sedition and apply to menial issues which are no way related to the concept of Sedition and that is the main reason why the Sedition has been filed even in inappropriate cases which have to stop immediately and new definition which is based on strict interpretation rule must introduce only then the aim of maintaining peace and national integrity along with the safeguarding of citizen's right can be achieved eventually. A patriot must always boldly defend his country and raise his voice against injustice without the fear of the government and in no way the Sedition law should stand against this. Hence, the Sedition law must punish a person who poses a threat to the Nation not to a respective political party or government.

[i] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/sep/10/indian-cartoonist-jailed-sedition

[ii] https://www.newsclick.in/5-years-FB-post-modi-UP-man-arrested-charged-sedition

[iii] https://www.ndtv.com/karnataka-news/protests-in-bengaluru-over-sedition-case-against-school-for-anti-caa-play-2176053

[iv] https://caravanmagazine.in/vantage/section-124a-sedition-jnu-protests

[v] https://caravanmagazine.in/vantage/section-124a-sedition-jnu-protests

[vi] https://www.scconline.com/blog/post/2017/10/03/section-124-a-ipc-where-to-draw-the-line/

[vii] https://theprint.in/opinion/heres-the-text-of-justice-deepak-guptas-speech-on-sedition-law-being-abused-and-misused/288439/

[viii] https://www.scconline.com/blog/post/2017/10/03/section-124-a-ipc-where-to-draw-the-line/

[ix] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/1/21/how-india-uses-colonial-era-sedition-law-against-caa-protesters

[x] https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/afzal-guru-film-screening-jnu-student-leader-held-for-sedition/

[xi] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/sedition-charges-3-engineering-students-from-kashmir-released/article30835457.ece

[xii] https://www.hindustantimes.com/delhi/nearly-7-000-cases-of-sedition-filed-in-kudankulam/story-iWOdCNRxlWetgMBmiOUbhP.html

[xiii] https://www.scconline.com/blog/post/2017/10/03/section-124-a-ipc-where-to-draw-the-line/

[xiv] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/law-commission-backs-dissent-in-a-democracy/article24822850.ece

[xv] https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/sedition-law-modi-govt-retain-provision-anti-national-elements-1560982-2019-07-03

Author's Biography

Sharithira is currently pursuing her law degree in School of Excellence in Law, Chennai. She worked as student reporter for a Tamil magazine named 'Chutti Vikatan' during her school days and her writing passion still continues. She is always intrested to write articles about social issues. 

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