Why does India have a 'Sedition Law’?

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The Supreme Court has held in abeyance a controversial colonial-era law, while directing the central government to reconsider this legal relic. The law in question is the ‘Sedition Law’, or Section 124A (Sedition) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which has been used by various governments over the years to silence dissent. Hundreds of Indians have been charged under this law and are awaiting trial.

The question, however, is not so much why the law was framed by the British in 1870, who as a colonial power were eager to put down any challenge with a firm hand. It is about why Section 124A (Sedition) of the IPC was allowed to continue on the statute books after Independence.

This law has been frequently used in Independent and democratic India as a political tool, to deal with ‘inconvenient’ political opponents, raising fundamental questions about why it continues to exist today.

Why did those who framed the Indian Constitution allow the ‘sedition law’ to continue?

What is the ‘Sedition Law’?

The ‘Sedition Law' was drafted as early as 1837 but incorporated into the IPC only in 1870. The law defined sedition as:

“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”.

The colonial government used it against a number of Indian freedom fighters like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Annie Besant, Maulana Azad and Mahatma Gandhi. When India became independent in 1947 and a Constituent Assembly was set up to draft a new Constitution for India, it was expected that the ‘Sedition Law’ would be repealed. It wasn’t.

Debating the ‘Sedition Law’

It was retained even though it had generated much debate in the Constituent Assembly. For example, when an interim report on Fundamental Rights was tabled in the Constituent Assembly on April 29, 1947 by its chairman, Sardar Patel, members objected to the inclusion of the ‘Sedition Law’.

Somnath Lahiri
Somnath Lahiri | Amazon

Somnath Lahiri, the sole representative from the Communist Party of India, vehemently protested and said that the fundamental rights had been framed from the point of view of a “police constable”. Due to Lahiri’s vehement opposition, Sardar Patel relented and deleted the word “sedition” from the interim report.

But when the draft law on fundamental rights was presented to the Constituent Assembly again, after 20 turbulent months, in December 1948, the word ‘sedition’ was included in it, causing a furore.

First day of Constituent Assembly of India
First day of Constituent Assembly of India. In the first row (From Left): Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, B. G. Kher, Vallabhai Patel and K. M. Munshi | Wikimedia Commons

It was K M Munshi, a lawyer, an educator, a freedom fighter and the founder of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, from Gujarat who led the charge against ‘sedition’. After a heated debate, Dr B R Ambedkar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee, accepted an amendment moved by Munshi, and the word was deleted and replaced with “(acts) which undermine the security of, or tends to overthrow, the state”.

Citing his reasons for moving the amendment, Munshi said the word ‘sedition’ “is of doubtful and varying import and to introduce words which are now considered to be the gist of an offence against the State”.

But the Constituent Assembly managed to slip in the word ‘sedition’ in another place in the Constitution, where the question of restrictions on Free Speech were concerned. This led to another round of debate. The sum and substance, however, was given by Prof K T Shah, a lawyer and an economist who played a prominent part in the Constituent Assembly as well as in the Congress party. He pointed out a basic contradiction in the article:

“In fact, what is given by one right hand seems to be taken away by three or four or five left hands; and therefore, the article is rendered nugatory in any opinion that the rights given under one section of the article were taken away by the next section.”

‘Extraordinary Times’

The argument presented by the Government was that these were extraordinary times. The country had been partitioned into India and Pakistan. In the ensuring communal violence, lakhs of people had been either killed or forced to become refugees. In such extraordinary times, there needed to be some reasonable restrictions on Free Speech and it on the restrictions included Sedition. But K T Shah countered this, saying “the Constitution must be framed for normal times not for abnormal situations”.

Later, in 1949-50, India and Pakistan came to the brink of war on the issue of Hindus being driven out of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) although this was averted by the Nehru-Liaqat Pact. These disturbances, which included those instigated by both Left- and Right-wing extremists, led to the passage of the First Amendment, which included incitement to an offence as one of the “reasonable restrictions” on the enjoyment of free speech.

Jawaharlal Nehru addressing the constituent assembly in 1946 | Wikimedia Commons

In his reply on this occasion, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nehru, who was then leader of the Provisional Government that oversaw the transition of power from Britain to India, stated: “So far as I am concerned, that particular section is highly objectionable and obnoxious. It should be given no place in our Constitution for reasons both practical and historical. The sooner we get rid of it, the better.”

Still, neither his government nor successor governments have repealed this law to date.

The confusion, however, continued to prevail. Although the word ‘sedition’ was removed from the ‘reasonable restrictions’ on Fundamental Rights in the Constituent Assembly itself, it continued to be a part of Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code.

Through the 1950s and 60s, the Central and State governments have used the Section 124A, to target political opponents. In 1953, Kedar Nath Singh, a member of the Communist Party of India, made a fiery speech against the Congress, due to which he was booked under the ‘Sedition Law’. The speech led to his conviction and imprisonment and his appeal in the Patna High Court was stuck down as “incitement to revolution”.

Kedar Nath Singh then appealed in the Supreme Court, which delivered its judgement in 1962. The Supreme Court upheld the Section 124A, adding that it included acts which caused “public disorder”.

Ironically, till then, the law was only applicable to violent acts to ‘overthrow’ the government, but because of the 1962 judgement, it included any act which caused ‘public disorder’.

This opened the floodgates for its misuse and, since then, the ‘Sedition Law’ has been misused numerous times by governments led by various political parties, to harass journalists, protestors and anyone opposing the government. The recent decision of the Supreme Court to have a fundamental look at the law, adds a new chapter to its long and varied history.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kalyan Chatterjee is a Delhi NCR-based freelance journalist. He worked as a full-time journalist in the UNI and the Deccan Herald and taught mass communication for 18 years. He is the author of the book Media and Nation Building in Twentieth Century India: Life and Times of Ramananda Chatterjee.

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