For far too many years, Section 124A, commonly known as the Sedition law, has loomed over the Indian legal landscape, casting a shadow on freedom of expression. The recent push to challenge its constitutional validity has ignited a glimmer of hope, but it’s a contentious journey, one where the government and the Supreme Court find themselves at odds. It’s a familiar script – when in opposition, all political parties unite in demanding the complete repeal of Section 124A. However, the narrative drastically shifts when they assume power. The Modi government is no exception. Yet, this time around, the Supreme Court appears steadfast in its commitment to addressing this contentious issue. The apex court’s stance is crystal clear: the constitutional validity of Section 124A will be deliberated upon, and there’s no room for compromise. A Constitution bench, comprising five justices, will lead this critical examination.
For those unacquainted, Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) criminalizes sedition, a provision that has sparked numerous debates on freedom of speech. The government’s argument that there’s no need for such a hearing, as the IPC is being replaced by the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita Bill which is currently under parliamentary review, has fallen on deaf ears in the Supreme Court. The court maintains that as long as Section 124A remains in the statute books, challenges must be addressed accordingly. The proposed new law will apply prospectively and not retrospectively, as clarified by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud. This means that existing cases under Section 124A will remain unaffected. The Constitution bench will also revisit the 1962 judgment, which upheld the validity of Section 124A but did not scrutinize it against Article 14 (equality before law). Today, the popular sentiment leans towards scrapping Section 124A entirely. Warnings abound that prosecutions will continue even with the new law in place. Section 124A’s ambiguity in distinguishing between “state” and “government” only adds to its contentious nature. This colonial-era relic should have been discarded with the end of British rule, but it has endured, employed indiscriminately by successive Indian governments to stifle dissent.
Section 124A is a weapon that turns any government authoritarian when wielded. Regrettably, every Indian government post-independence has succumbed to this temptation, including the current Modi administration. The law has silenced government critics across the board – journalists, students, academics, and political rivals. The maximum sentence for sedition is ‘life,’ but the real punishment lies in the protracted legal process itself.
Each new parliamentary session sees calls to abolish the sedition law, yet it lingers on. In 2022, the Supreme Court temporarily restrained its use, hinting that if Parliament failed to act, the court might address its constitutionality. Beyond domestic concerns, international human rights standards require India to reconsider Section 124A’s existence. The time for change is long overdue. The Supreme Court must stand firm, resolute in its pursuit of justice. Only a decisive ruling will put an end to this perpetual uncertainty. The British repealed their own sedition law in 2009. India should not wait for a crisis to act. During Modi’s tenure, sedition cases have surged by 30 percent, an alarming statistic that raises concerns over the suppression of free speech. It’s a bitter irony that even making jokes about the Prime Minister can attract the heavy hand of Section 124A. The situation is both ludicrous and concerning – it’s time for India to take a decisive step towards upholding the principles of free expression.