Statement of the Lok Raj Sangathan 20th May 2022
Lok Raj Sangathan, together with many other organisations fighting for the rights of the people, has been opposing the sedition law along with other black laws like the UAPA and the AFSPA. The very concept of ‘sedition’ or opposition to the government being a crime is thoroughly anti-democratic. “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, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added…” Thus, contrary to the widely held notion, it is not an “anti-national” act, but an act which “tarnishes the reputation of the GOVERNMENT”.
The law on Sedition is an attack on the right to conscience. It allows the state to criminalise all those who question the violation of the rights of people or criticise the policies of the government. Sedition was inserted into the Indian Penal Code by the Imperial Legislative Council Act No. 27 of 1870. The purpose behind the law was to criminalise ideas opposed to colonial rule and crush any uprising against the colonial rule. Thousands of people fighting for freedom, including Lokmanya Tilak were charged under Sec 124 A IPC. Despite it being a clearly undemocratic provision meant to safeguard colonial rule, it is notable that the Supreme Court of India had upheld the Constitutional validity of the section in the Kedarnath Singh case in 1962. At that time, court held that unless accompanied by an incitement or call for violence, (mere) criticism of the government cannot be labelled sedition. However, through the decades, governments at the Centre and in the states have merrily slapped sedition charges on people fighting for their rights, on journalists and others critical of the government. Since 2014, when the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) started compiling data on sedition, 399 sedition cases have been filed across the country, including 93 in 2019, and 73 in 2020. The pendency rate is also high – 95% in 2020.
Over the past couple of years, several petitions challenging the constitutional validity and unjustness of the colonial-era sedition law wer4e filed in the Supreme Court by a retired major general of the army, a former BJP minister, an opposition Lok Sabha MP, a body representing senior editors, and several journalists and activists. There were also a few intervenors to these petitions, people who wanted to be heard without becoming petitioners themselves. Finally, on Wednesday. 11th May 2022, the Supreme Court of India ordered that the 152-year old sedition law under Section 124A of the IPC should be effectively kept in “abeyance” till the Union Government reconsiders it.
This is being hailed as victory for justice-loving forces and also as an instance where the Supreme Court of India has come to the “rescue” of the people. While the Union Government had been vociferously opposing scrapping of the colonial era sedition law till even a week before the judgement, Prime Minister Mr Modi is being hailed as one who, in the interests of freedom of expression has urged the reconsideration. It is to be noted that the law has NOT been scrapped, as we have demanded, but merely “kept in abeyance” till the Central Government “reconsiders” the provision.
The Supreme Court ordered a “stay” on all pending sedition cases and “advised” the police and administration to not use this section of the law until the Centre finishes its review. Chief Justice Ramanna said, “It is clear that Centre AGREES that rigours of section 124a are not in tune with the current situation and it was intended for the time when the country was under colonial law. Thus, centre may reconsider it. The court is to balance civil liberty and sovereignty of the state. This is a difficult exercise,” This is an open acknowledgement of the fact that all sedition cases foisted upon people after 1947 are unjust.!
Hence, firstly, the provision must NEVER be used in future – to quote the Chief Justice again “”If any fresh cases are filed, concerned parties may approach court and court to expeditiously dispose of the same”. The Central Government said that “On pending cases, courts can be directed to expeditiously consider bail”.
But that is hardly sufficient in our view! If, to quote the Hon Chief Justice, the law was not in tune with the period when the country was not under colonial law, then it stands to reason that ALL cases of sedition against whomsoever filed since 1947 must be clearly overturned by the courts AND the people concerned must be compensated for having an archaic and unjust provision maliciously used against them.
From the time the law was used in independent India to the present date, tens of thousands of people and organisations including Lok Raj Sangathan have been persistently and consistently demanding that the colonial era law be scrapped. In recent months, the increasingly blatant use of the sedition law, not only against activists and people fighting for justice, but also in the dogfights amongst the ruling parties – the ‘Hanuman Chalisa’ chanting case in Mumbai being an instance of the latter – have brought the black sedition law into even greater disrepute. Hence, it is clear that the “keeping in abeyance” of the Sedition Law has not come due to any benevolence of the Prime Minister or the magnanimity of the Supreme Court of India. It is the result of the persistent struggle against this and other black laws. In fact, this persistent struggle against this undemocratic law had become a source of embarrassment to the government in the international arena.
It is important to reiterate that the sedition law has not yet been scrapped, as demanded. It is merely suspended for the time that the Central Government “reviews” it. Hence it is important to continue the struggle to demand that the law be fully scrapped in the first place. It is also important to demand justice to all those thousands of people over the years, who have been unjustly charged using a colonial era law which the Supreme Court now says is outdated – as it was outdated the moment India became independent of colonial rule in 1947.
The forces fighting for justice should correctly be proud and rejoice that their prolonged and relentless struggle has led to this small victory. Lok Raj Sangathan urges all the organisations and individuals fighting for the rights of the people to redouble our efforts to ensure that the sedition law is completely scrapped in the first place, and that the authorities are forced to withdraw and scrap all other anti-people black laws used to suppress the struggles of the people fighting for justice, such as the UAPA and the AFSPA! 1152
Appendix – Petitioners and Intervenors against the Sec 124 A IPC (SEDITION) in the Supreme Court of India
(1) The Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana agreed to examine the constitutional validity of the sedition law based on a petition filed by journalists Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha from Manipur and Kanhaiya Lal Shukla from Chhattisgarh.
(1 a) Three intervention applications were filed in support of this duo. The interveners want to be heard without becoming parties in the matter themselves. The first intervention, filed by journalist Sashi Kumar, points out that in 2019, 93 cases were registered as compared to 35 in 2016 – a jump of 165 per cent! Of these 93 cases, chargesheets were filed in a mere 17 per cent cases, while conviction was as low as 3.3 per cent! The second intervener, law professor Dr Sanjay Jain, has given an overview of sedition laws in other countries to help the court analyse the law contemporarily. The third intervener, Foundation for Media Professionals, has advanced similar arguments.
(2) Shreya and Aamoda, both of which are private media houses from Andhra Pradesh, approached the Supreme Court in May 2021 against the state government’s move to invoke sedition charges against them for broadcasting anti-establishment statements made by Lok Sabha member R.K. Raju. They argued that the FIR against them violated the Right to Free Speech
(3) A retired Major General of the Indian Army, S.G. Vombatkere, petitioned the Supreme Court in July last year, contending that the statute criminalising expression “based on unconstitutionally vague definitions of disaffection towards government is an unreasonable restriction”. Section 124A to be must be declared as “void and inoperative” and for being ultra vires of three fundamental rights — Article 19 (1) (a) (free speech), Article 14 (equality) and Article 21 (liberty). Further court must issue a mandamus or direction to close all criminal proceedings related to Section 124A. The CJI had then remarked there was no reason to doubt the credentials of the petitioner, who as an army officer, had offered his services to the nation.
(4) The Editors Guild of India’s petition highlights the increasing misuse of Section 124A to intimidate journalists. It wants the court to hold the law as unconstitutional and violative of Articles 14, 19 and 21. The Guild alleged that members of the press are facing FIRs under the sedition law for doing their duty and has also asked the court to declare complaints alleging sedition charges against a member of the press as an exceptional category of cases.
(5) Veteran journalist and former Union minister Arun Shourie as well the NGO Common Cause as have denounced the 1962 Kedar Nath Singh ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the sedition law. They argued that the judgment read words into the section, which was formulated with an intent to suppress dissent. The presumption of constitutionality does not apply to pre-constitutional laws — i.e. those dating to the British era — as those would have been made by a foreign legislature or body.
(6) The petition filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) claims that sedition was a political crime and added to the penal code to prevent “political uprisings against the Crown and to control the British colonies”. In Independent India, laws of such “repressive” character have no place. Words such as “disaffection, disloyalty and disapprobation” used to define the section are vague, making the provision void.
(7) Journalist Anil Chamadia, editor of the monthly journals Mass Media and Jan Media, traced the history of sedition in his petition urging the court to strike down the law. When the SC upheld the validity of Section 124A in 1962, the offence was non-cognisable, meaning a judicial officer was required for making an arrest. In 1973, this procedural safeguard was taken away by making the offence cognisable. Even though a subsequent ruling in 2016 reiterated the safeguards enumerated in the Kedar Nath Singh judgment, the reality is that the section continues to be misused. This, he argued, is because of the vague terminology that the provision is couched in, rendering Section 124A as a tool to stifle free speech.
(8) Editors Mukhim from Meghalaya and Bhasin from Jammu and Kashmir have urged the top court to declare Section 124A invalid and also quash all pending trials, proceedings, and investigations pertaining to it. They contend that the offence of sedition is an “oppressive legal device, inherently susceptible and amenable to being deployed to curb free speech, freedom of the press, criticism, dissent and to punish critical voices in a democracy”. It is part of an “arsenal of laws of the colonial rulers to police the minds and penalise Indians”, and used to criminalise free speech and journalism. The words used in Section 124A “are incapable of being defined with sufficient definiteness, and thus it suffers from the incurable vice of vagueness and overbreadth”.
(9) Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra has been one of the most vocal petitioners in the case. She argued that, historically, the sedition law was merely “a tool to preserve the interests of monarchies” and was used against those who opposed “an undemocratic form of government”. Therefore, section 124A “has no place in a liberal democracy”. Moitra’s petition, too, mentioned the 1962 Kedar Nath case, noting that though it read down the provisions of the law that made merely exciting ‘disaffection’ as sufficient for its invocation, 124A still remained “open to abuse and misuse”. Her petition also noted that England, the “birthplace” of the law, had already abolished it. 922 2078 total