India: Is it time for the sedition law to go away?

India’s Supreme Court took a bold step this week by suspending a law brazenly used by different governments to silence dissidents and critics. The 162-year-old sedition law may well be on its way out, and it’s not too soon.

The court has said no new sedition cases can be filed until the matter is resolved and the government promises to re-examine the matter. Those who are already charged or jailed under the draconian law can go to court for bail immediately.

Within hours it became clear that the government was not very happy with the stay. Justice Minister Kiren Rhijjiju even said that the courts had crossed a ‘Laksman Rekha’ (boundary). Despite the fact that only a day before, stories were flying at high speed that the Prime Minister himself had ordered a review of the colonial-era law.

The fact is that sedition law has been misused by various governments over the years to silence critics, although data shows this trend has multiplied since 2014. Chief Justice of India , NV Ramana, recently observed that sedition is being misused to trample on the fundamental rights of citizens. freedom of expression and liberty.

Section 124A defines sedition as: “Whoever, by words, whether spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representations, or otherwise, causes or attempts to cause hatred or contempt, or incites or attempts to incite disaffection towards the government. established by law shall be punished with imprisonment.

Relic of the colonial era

Sedition law was added to the Indian Penal Code in 1860. It was used extensively to curb political dissent during India’s independence movement against the British.

Freedom fighters such as Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Annie Besant, and Maulana Azad were charged under it. Gandhi went to jail for it. In 1962, the Kedar Nath Singh judgment of the Supreme Court issued the most authoritative order on sedition law.

The five-judge Constitutional Chamber, while defending the constitutional validity of section 124A, went on to say that criticism of public measures or comments on government action falls under the fundamental right to freedom of expression as long as the comments do not “incite people to violence against the government established by law” or are made “with the intention of creating public disorder”.

But over the years, this injunction was nullified as the law was used to attack opponents for the most absurd reasons. Data compiled by Article shows how various governments have misused sedition with cases increasing over the last few years.

Their data shows a 28% annual increase in sedition cases between 2014 and 2020 compared to the annual average between 2010 and 2014. Nearly 96% of sedition cases were brought against 405 indigenous people for criticizing the government and politicians between 2010 and 2021.

There is no place for outdated law

The public conversation about sedition began in 2012 when cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested under the UPA government.

Trivedi was jailed for two weeks for drawing cartoons about corruption.

In recent years, people have been jailed for sedition for not defending the national anthem. A few weeks ago, the Maharashtra government filed sedition charges against MP Navneet Rana and her husband, her MLA, for wanting to sing the Hanuman chalisa in front of the home of Prime Minister Uddhav Thackeray.

Author Arundhati Roy was charged with sedition for her controversial comments on Kashmir, young climate activist Disha Ravi was jailed for a while, journalists Vinod Dua and Siddique Kappan, among others, have also been victims.

In India today, there is no place for a law like sedition. Dissent and opposition are at the heart of any democracy. It’s time to throw away this colonial law.

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