Congress Pledges To Scrap Sedition: All You Need To Know About The 160-Year Law

Tilak in 1908 and Kanhaiya Kumar in 2016 were both victims of India's sedition law - a remnant of the British era in Indian law

The Indian National Congress in its manifesto released on April 2, have promised to omit the section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). This provision, a British-era law introduced in 1860, lays down the definition of sedition in India. Sedition laws in India has been a contentious issue which successive governments in independent India have used to their benefit in their tenure.

Sedition has also been subject of litigation in the Indian courts at various occasions too, with attempts made to dispose it off altogether through Acts of Parliament - one attempt as recently as 2015, albeit through a private member's bill.

The announcement was amongst many during the launch of their manifesto for the ensuing Lok Sabha election

Snippet from Section 30 of the Congress Manifesto

BOOM tells you all that you need to know regarding sedition laws in India.

Laws In India Pertaining to Offences Against The State

Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code Act is the foundation of sedition law in India.

Passed in 1860 - one of the oldest British-era laws still operating in India - it 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, 2***the Government established by law in 3*[India], a 4***shall be punished with 5*[imprisonment for life], to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.

Under section 124A of the IPC, a convicted person may receive a jail term between three years or life, and may additionally be fined.

Further, the Act provides these three explanations just after the Act:

  • Explanation 1: The expression "disaffection" includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.
  • Explanation 2: Comments expressing disapprobation of the measures of the Government with a view to obtain their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.
  • Explanation 3: Comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.

Additionally, there also exists four additional sections pertaining to offences against the state:

  • Section 121: Attempting to wage war against the Government of India
  • Section 121A: Conspiracy to commit crimes punishable by section 121
  • Section 122: Collecting arms with the intention of waging war against the Government of India
  • Section 123: Concealing with intent the design to wage war against the Government of India

Read: The Indian Penal Code Act, 1860

Sedition In Numbers

According to the latest data by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of the Ministry of Home Affairs, India saw a total of 178 cases of the offences against the state, only defined by those who were charged under any of the sections mentioned in the previous section.

These numbers are of 2016 - when NCRB's last released data.

When these 178 cases are added to a backlog of 433 cases, a total of 611 cases had been established until the end of 2016. This data also shows that 72% are still pending to be investigated, with only 83 cases being disposed off.

Sedition: In The Courts Of India

Sedition cases are not uncommon to Indian courts - both pre and post independence.

Amongst the most prominent fatalities of sedition under section 124A was Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who was on trial for sedition due to two articles he wrote in his publication 'Kesari'.

A picture of the 'Kesari'

This trial, that took place in 1908, led him to being sentenced to six years of imprisonment in Burma.

Post independence, several cases of sedition have been registered too. A consultation paper dated August 30, 2018 on sedition by the Law Commission of India has outlined them.

In independent India, the first case of sedition was filed against a certain Romesh Thapar in 1950, a noted communist and writer in western Tamil Nadu, which later became Kerala.

In 1997, in the case Bilal Ahmed Kaloo vs. the State of Andhra Pradesh, a Kashmiri youth, part of a radical Islamist outfit 'Al-Jihad', was convicted under sedition by a trail court, which was later overturned by the Supreme Court; his conviction under the Arms Act remaining unaffected.

Further, on the day Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated on October 31, 1984, a civil servant in Punjab shouted pro-Khalistani slogans while coming out of his office. The Supreme Court rejected any conviction under sedition in this case in 1995. The case - namely 'Balwant Singh vs. the State of Punjab'-no intent of acts against the state could be established, as all the prosecution's witnesses were rejected.

In 2003, Vishwa Hindu Parishad general secretary Praveen Togadia was slapped with charges on conspiring to wage war by the government of Rajasthan, after he gave inflammatory speeches and for allegedly distributing 'trishuls' (tridents). This was reported by the Hindu.

However, the case was withdrawn against him by the Government of Rajasthan in 2015, as reported here.

The most prominent recent case was against the three students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University - Kanhaiya Kumar, Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid, who were charged with sedition for allegedly shouting anti-India slogans on Februrary 9, 2016 at an event in JNU to mark the anniversary of the hanging of terrorist Afzal Guru.

This case is ongoing, with the most recent hearing held on February 28 this year.

Opposition To Section 124A Of The IPC

Primary opposition to the law on sedition post independence came from the Constituent Assembly - which was tasked with framing the Constitution of India - was against keeping the law of sedition. Therefore, while sedition is present in the Indian legislature through the IPC and judiciary, it is not present in the Indian Constitution.

Post the release of the Congress manifesto, its primary opposition; the BJP has taken a polar opposite stance on the issue.

PM Narendra Modi in a rally in Gondia, Maharashtra on April 4 issued a scathing attack on the propoal to drop the sedition clause.

Opposition parties in India support the scrapping of the sedition law in India, although their electoral campaigns still remain fragmented and there has been no formal streamlining of their view on this issue.

They argue that sedition remains a tool used to suppress dissenting voices in colonial India during the British era, and has no place in a modern and free Indian society.

Kapil Sibal, Congress lawyer and politician told Reuters:

Many who merely speak or tweet against the government have sedition charges imposed against them; it is being misused by the centre just to keep citizens in check.

Sedition as an issue on the national political arena gathered steam after the Kanhaiya Kumar and JNU fiasco in early 2016, and has managed to be in the public discourse long enough to find a place in the Congress manifesto; the legal case against the students still being fought in court.

The charge has been used in frivolous instances too - as seen in the case of 67 students in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. Students - incidentally hailing from Kashmir - were at the Swami Vivekanand Subharti University and were accused of chanting pro-Pakistani slogans after India lost a cricket match to Pakistan in March 2014. Not only were they expelled from the university, but were also charged with sedition by the police. The charges were withdrawn later.

Few Kashmiri students refute the entire account leading to their arrest. Coverage of the entire incident can be read here.

Attempts To Amend The Law

The Law Commission has on many occasions attempted to report amendments to the law on sedition.

  • In 1971, it proposed a stable seven-year term for those convicted, from the current three years or life in prison
  • In 2017, the commission proposed amending this section to incorporate demarcation between sedition and hate-speech; the former being an offence against the state and the latter a nuisance towards public tranquility

The Congress manifesto's intention to omit the clause on sedition is not the first such attempt by the party.

A recent noted attempt to change the sedition law proposed in 2015 during the 16th Lok Sabha as a private member bill by Shashi Tharoor. Labelled the 'The Indian Penal Code (Amendment) Bill, 2015', narrowing the definition of sedition to only those words (or signs and visual cues) that directly lead to violence.

Before that, CPI leader and a Rajya Sabha MP Dr. D Raja of Tamil Nadu, proposed a private member's bill in 2011 to get rid of sedition, stating its obsolescence.

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