Sedition is one of the many remnant leftovers from the British era. The charge of sedition has been used many times in India’s history, all the way from Mahatma Gandhi to cricket fans. Sedition poses a serious threat to India; its misuse has resulted in stifling the people’s voice. Thus it is important (for everyone) to understand the legal grounds on which sedition stands.
Sedition has been defined in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code as any action, or words which bring about hatred or contempt or excites “disaffection” towards the government. It has been provided in Explanation 1 of this section that “disaffection” includes disloyalty and feelings of enmity.
Essentials of Sedition as provided in Section 124A
- Any person through words, either written or spoken or with actions or representation
- Incites hatred or contempt
- Or disaffection
- Towards the government
Penalties for Sedition
Sedition is a Criminal act and the penalty for it has been provided in the same section as follows:
- Imprisonment for life, Or
- imprisonment which may extend to 3 years with fine or fine may be added later on
Characteristics of Sedition
- Sedition is a Non-Bailable Offence- This means that a person who has been arrested on charges of sedition does not have the right to bail unless the court of competent jurisdiction can order grant of bail. Such an application can be made under Section 437 and 439 of Criminal Procedure Code.
- Sedition is not compoundable- If an offence is not compoundable, it means that the victim and the accused cannot settle between themselves and come to an amicable compromise in order to avoid trial. This means that for an offence of sedition, the case must be settled before a court of law.
- Sedition is a Cognizable Offence- which means that the police have the power to arrest a person on a charge of sedition without a warrant. The definition of cognizable offence has been provided for in Section 2(1) of the Criminal Procedural Code.
Exceptions to the Law of Sedition
Explanation 2 and 3 of section 124A has provided certain restrictions for the application of this section and they are as follows:
- Any comment expressing strong disapproval of the government in order to attain change in the measures of the government is not sedition if at the same time it does not incite hate, contempt or disaffection.
- Any comment which expresses strong disapproval of the government cannot be called sedition if it does not incite hate, contempt or disaffection.
Sedition and Article 19(1) (a)
The constitution has guaranteed certain fundamental rights, one of which is the right to freedom of speech and expression which has been given in Part III of the Constitution under Article 19(1)(a). Since the introduction of the Constitution, the question of whether sedition laws are a violation of the freedom of speech has been a very contentious issue. It was left to the courts to answer this question which they have in a number of decisions.
- Kedar Nath v. State of Bihar
Facts: KedarNath, who was a member of the Forward Communist party, had referred to the CID as “dogs” and had the called the Congress Party, “goondas.” He was charged with sedition and arrested.
Issue: Whether Section 124A was ultra vires due to it being violative of Article 19.
Judgement: the court held that this law is constitutionally valid, i.e. intra vires as there is a need to protect public order and it is permissible to place certain restrictions, even on the freedom of speech.
It is within the ambit of governmental power to make laws which may violate Article 19 in order to maintain the safety and peace of the country.
Scope of Section 124A
The wording of this section being so vague, the lawhas given the government a lot of room to exercise it. The courts have found it necessary to restrict the applicability of this section due to its destructive power against free speech which is a fundamental precept of democracy. The court has restricted its meaning in the following cases:
- Kedar Nath Case
The Supreme Court, in this case, has further held that Article 124A is to be used in a stricter sense meaning that this section would only apply in cases where the comments made are of such a character that it would tend to incite violence.
- Balwant Singh and Anr. v. State Of Punjab
In this case the appellants raised a few slogans in front of a crowd after leaving their offices.A question of whether theraising of slogans was enough to attract Section 124A was answered by the court. It was held that mere raising of slogans without any excitement or incitement of the crowd is not sufficient grounds for application of Article 124A, instead there needed to be an overt act before the charge would be justified.
- SanskarMarathe v. State of Maharashtra
This is one of the most famous cases relating to sedition in India. Aseem Trivedi, a cartoonist, was accused and arrested on charge of sedition after publishing cartoons regarding corruption in the government. He was accused of defaming the national emblem and promotion of disrespect and hatred against the government. The Supreme Court in 2015 held that an act of sedition must “…bring the Government (Central or State) into hatred or contempt or must be an incitement to violence.”
The court also said that:
# Words or signs or acts cannot be assumed to be against the government if it is a public servant unless it is shown that he is a representative of the government.
# Obscenity alone is not satisfactory grounds to apply Section 124A.
- Common Cause and Anr. v. Union of India Union of India
Recently the court had thrown out a petition where an NGO approached the Supreme Court on the grounds that there was flagrant misuse of sedition laws. They contended that the court needed to frame new guidelines for the police to follow.
The Supreme Court in its judgement held that when dealing with cases of sedition, the law laid down in KedarNath case was to be followed. Further, “Someone making a statement to criticise the government does not invoke an offence under sedition or defamation law.”
Sedition, being an exception to freedom of speech guaranteed as a fundamental right, poses a great threat to India. Free speech is one of the tenets of democracy and its importance cannot be understated. The laws governing sedition, therefore, must be carefully analyzed and interpreted so as to protect and preserve democracy. The Judiciary has thus been tasked with the onus of balancing this freedom with the needs of the nation.
 AIR 1962 SC 955.
 1995 (1) SCR 411.
 2015 CriLJ 3561.
 Writ Petition (CIVIL) NO. 683 OF 2016.
About the Author: Neitseizonuo is a second-year law student at Hidayatullah National Law University.
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